As James Fulwiler descended the steps toward the eighth floor of Gladfelter Hall last week, he checked his cellphone and saw that he’d received a voicemail from an unfamiliar number. After listening to the message, his disbelief almost caused him to fall down the staircase.
The call was from a producer for “Jeopardy!” inviting Fulwiler to participate in the quiz show.
Early last year, he completed a 50-question online test in an attempt to qualify to audition for the program’s College Championship. There is a test available every year for adults, college students, teachers and teens. Once Fulwiler was invited to audition, he traveled to New York where he took another quiz, as well as a buzzer test and an interview.
“I took the teen one a couple of times, and I took the adult test once and didn’t do so well,” Fulwiler said. “I did really well on the college test, though.”
But after no one from the show contacted him for nearly seven months, Fulwiler said he put the audition out of his mind – until he learned he was one of 15 college students chosen to compete.
Although the Baltimore native was no stranger to trivia competitions – he’s been a “Jeopardy!” fan for most of his life and he participated in quiz bowls throughout middle and high school – the junior art history major still had to prep himself for the tournament, which was taped last month and aired yesterday.
“I watched a lot more of the show, but not only for the information, because I figured there’s not much more you can cram into your head if you’ve gotten to that point,” Fulwiler said. “I was looking for the verbal cues that they give in the questions sometimes. I also tried to work on the buzzer a lot. I got a bunch of Trivial Pursuit cards for Christmas right before I flew out, so I flipped through those all the time to stay in the trivia mindset.”
Once Fulwiler arrived at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, two weeks of 30-minute episodes were filmed in two days. Despite the competition, Fulwiler said he and the other contestants quickly bonded.
“The atmosphere was friendly and we got along really well,” Fulwiler said. “When we weren’t participating, most of us were in the audience cheering for the kids that were on. We have a lot in common – we’re all huge geeks who love ‘Jeopardy!’ They’re good people to keep in touch with when they go rule the world.”
The first five episodes of the College Championship consist of the quarterfinals. Each winner, plus four of the highest scorers who didn’t win, compete throughout the following three matches in the semifinals. The three remaining students play two matches – the winner, who receives $100,000, is determined by comparing how much money each finalist earned within the last round.
Fulwiler said his biggest concern while playing the game was his speed in answering questions.
“When you’re looking at the board, there are lights on the side of it,” Fulwiler said. “When [host] Alex Trebek finishes reading a question, the lights go on, and that’s when you can buzz in. If you do it before that, your buzzer gets locked out for half a second, and that’s way too much time.”
Fulwiler, who competed against students from the University of Delaware and University of Oklahoma, said he got the hang of the buzzer toward the end of the “Final Jeopardy” round. To maintain his speed, he buzzed in on questions he wasn’t sure of the answer to, consequently missing a few. Heading into the “Final Jeopardy” round, Fulwiler was tied with another contestant at $10,000 and bet it all.
“In the end, I didn’t advance, but I really don’t care about that. It was still awesome,” Fulwiler said. “I didn’t talk for a couple of hours after I lost, but the next day I was in pretty good spirits. I was rooting for everyone, so I couldn’t be mad that other people were winning, because they were all nice.”
Besides the bragging rights that come with being on the show, Fulwiler was given $5,000 for his participation. The first thing he’ll spend it on, he said, is a pair of tickets to see a Vancouver Canucks hockey game with his sister in Washington. If he won the tournament, his plans were more entrepreneurial.
“I was going to get a cart on 13th Street and start a soup business with one of my friends,” Fulwiler said.
When the episode aired, Fulwiler said his parents organized a viewing party, as well as his fraternity and fellow honors students.
“Everyone I know [watched] it, and then their parents and then a couple million other people,” Fulwiler said. “I just want someone to walk into work and recognize me.”
Cheyenne Shaffer can be reached at email@example.com.