I’m sure we can all look back at our lives, and pick one or two fork-in-the-road moments that would ultimately steer you into your current life path. I have many, of course, but one of the defining moments of my career path can be credited to a former Jeopardy champion.
If you would, please allow for a little self-indulgence.
I came from a fairly small city outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. Aside from a couple of major league baseball players (including former Cy Young Cliff Lee, whose Dad was my Little League coach), the town was not known for much other than its array of car dealerships. It was a fairly poor town, and still is. The graduating rates are low, and the most of the people who grow up there end up staying there for the rest of their lives, often mired in a circle of poverty.
However, during my high school years, I was part of a Quiz Bowl team that would help to reshape the lives of its members. The team would win the state title, and eventually, rank eighth in the nation at the national championship that took place in Disney World. It was the first time I’d ever really left the state, and the first time I’d ever taken a plane. On the Disney World monorail, I also learned my first bit of Spanish (“Por favor, mantengase alejado de las puertas.”).
The team was special, however, because in a typical graduating class in my hometown, I would imagine no more than eight or nine students would find any kind of substantial career success outside of that town. But the members of this team, all of which came from lower-middle class or and even impoverished homes, would buck those odds.
Shane Whitlock, our team captain, would go on to win College Jeopardy and become one of the best known “Jeopardy” players of the 1990s, He also became a very successful radiologist, and I believe he was also on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Another player, and my oldest friend, John James, would also go to medical school, which he paid for by writing trivia questions for other high schools around the nation, a skill he picked up from quiz bowl. He did not become a doctor, however.. He decided to be an Internet entrepreneur. In fact, it was when John and I were running our own fledgling start-up that I created Pajiba, nearly a decade ago.
Of course, after that start-up began to flail, I sold my stake in it in exchange for full ownership of Pajiba. Several iterations later, John would transform the tattered remains of that company into one of the most successful e-retail outlets in the country, Country Outfitter, which is basically unavoidable if you’ve ever been on the Internet. (The company also got an $83 million investment earlier this year).
Another member of that Quiz Bowl team runs the IT Department for John’s company, and another was Jeremy C. Fox, who was Pajiba’s first writer, and is now a staff member for the Boston Globe.
In an indirect way, you can trace much of our success back to that Quiz Bowl team, our coach Judy Parker (who flat out changed our lives) and Shane Whitlock, who captained our team to its success and gave us a taste for life and success outside of our town.
Shane would be an important part of my career again, in college, where I was an aspiring journalism major trying to get my foot in the door in the college newspaper. After several rejections, however, I learned that Shane was going to be on College Jeopardy, the first contestant to be in the tournament in the history of our college (and he wouldn’t just participate, he would win).
The show was pre-taped weeks in advance, so I took this knowledge to the managing editor of the college newspaper at the time, and leveraged this information in exchange for a position on the paper, refusing to provide the name unless they hired me to write the exclusive. It was the first of many stories I’d ultimately write for the college newspaper, almost all of which would get me in trouble with various factions of the student population, and one of which even resulted in death threats. The thrice-weekly column that I wrote for the newspaper was essentially the seed that would form Pajiba a few years later after I had attended law school (which I only managed to finish thanks to the financial assistance of John James, who loaned me some of the money he earned from writing trivia questions so that I could take the bar exam).
There’s a really nerdy version of Stand By Me buried somewhere in this story.
The point is, however, that I owe Shane Whitlock (and that quiz bowl team) a great debt that I could never repay. But, what I can do is encourage as many of this site’s readers as possible to go over to the “Jeopardy” website and vote for Shane Whitlock, who is competing with four other 90s champions to be the decade’s fan favorite and return to the show once again to participate in the Battle of the Decades Tournament. It would mean a lot if I could encourage you to vote for Shane. It’s one click, and there is no registration required. (And while you’re at it, if you’re in the market for a pair of cowboy boots, you could add a few bucks to the John’s pile of money by purchasing them at Country Outfitter).