Applications, placement tests, and auditions—more than a dozen IU alums have been through the rigorous process required to become contestants on a number of iconic television game shows.
Many admit that nostalgia was what drew them to the opportunity. It was a chance to meet their childhood idols, such as Alex Trebek, the late host of Jeopardy!, or Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak and Vanna White.
Keep reading to find out who was painfully close to winning and who walked away with cash and other grand prizes.
Kristen Courtney “K.C.” (Williams) Backer, MA’04, was a contestant on season 21. During the episode, which aired Oct. 14, 2004, Backer finished in third place and earned a $1,000 cash prize.
In 2015, Penelope “Penny” Reid, BA’87, came away with almost $25,000 after her initial Jeopardy! appearance during season 31.
“I was terrified, shaking the whole time. I got Final Jeopardy! wrong,” says Reid. “Fortunately, I was so far ahead going into Final Jeopardy! that it didn’t matter. I was lucky that I got questions about 1980s video games and Watergate.”
Reid came up short in her consecutive appearance on the game show but relishes the experience.
“The reason I like Jeopardy! is [because] it’s so question intensive. [Behind the scenes] it’s not as glamorous as you think. Studios are [just] big warehouses,” she says. “But the producers and staff were totally professional and super nice. I was glad to be able to meet Alex.”
Jennifer Lloyd, BA’88, JD’93, was a contestant on season 32. During the episode, which aired June 28, 2016, she finished in third place with a score of $300 and a cash prize of $1,000.
Lloyd grew up watching Jeopardy! with her family.
“I used to get home from school before anyone else. I’d secretly watch the recording and rewind it. That way, I already knew all the answers when we watched as a family [after dinner],” Lloyd says. “My parents thought I was a genius.”
During the Final Jeopardy! round, Lloyd and her fellow contestants were presented with this clue: Before his death in 1932, he donated over $100 million, including $50 million to the University of Rochester.
“I missed the answer about inventor George Eastman,” recalls Lloyd. “My brother-in-law works for Eastman Corporation—that was pretty embarrassing.”
After years of studying the show and 14 years after initially applying, Vincent Valenzuela, MBA’02, made his first appearance during season 34 of Jeopardy! in July 2018. After an inaccuracy caused him to lose, producers invited Valenzuela back to compete a second time during season 35.
“On Final Jeopardy!, in my first appearance, Alex read the final clue as ‘This term,’ and I wrote the correct question. However, when I looked up at the screen to double check, the clue read, ‘His term,’ completely changing what I thought they were looking for. So, I changed my answer. Had I not done that, I would have won. The judges realized they had made a clerical error and invited me back to try again,” Valenzuela recalls.
Matthew McDaniel, BA’98, was a contestant on season 37 of the classic game show. During the episode, which aired Nov. 24, 2020, McDaniel finished in second place with a score of $17,700. He received a cash prize of $2,000.
Ruth Reichard, JD’85, MA’08, PhD’15, was a contestant on season 37. She wagered all of her game money during Final Jeopardy! but didn’t come up with the answer. The clue was: Based on the 1974 novel, this film has been described as combining An Enemy of the People and Moby Dick. She finished in third place and received a cash prize of $1,000.
“The inclusion of the Enemy of the People totally threw me off,” Reichard told The Indiana Lawyer. “We had 30 seconds, and I just drew a blank.” The correct answer was Jaws.
Nostalgia drove Sarah (Thompson) Snider’s quest to compete on the Jeopardy! stage. She grew up watching the game show with her parents and was a trivia enthusiast.
“I always thought I would try out one day, but life got in the way,” Snider, BAJ’00, says. “When Alex Trebek died, I realized that you have to do things now and stop waiting for the perfect time.”
In May 2022, Snider appeared on season 38 and came close to defeating 23-day champ Mattea Roach. After that, producers invited her back to participate in the first Jeopardy! Second Chance Tournament.
“To finally stand where I had watched contestants stand over the years was unbelievable. Becoming a part of the Jeopardy! community is the unexpected perk of the experience,” she says.
To make the experience even sweeter, Snider filmed her first episode in Los Angeles during Super Bowl weekend.
“A close friend and fellow IU alum got us into the VIP room of a private party, where we got to meet Peyton Manning, who wished me luck!” she recalls.
Brett Dvorak, BA’03, JD’06, was a contestant in the 2001 Jeopardy! National College Championship. He finished as a semifinalist and won $5,000.
To Dvorak’s surprise, he wasn’t nervous during his time on set.
“While filming the show, it felt like I was sitting in my apartment with friends watching Jeopardy!, not standing in front of a studio audience,” he says.
Sarah Bauer, BA’13, JD’16, was a contestant in the 2012 National College Championship. She finished as a quarterfinalist and took home $5,000.
Bauer met her future husband, Greer Mackebee, while competing on the game show; however, Bauer and Mackebee didn’t become a couple until they reunited in Washington, D.C., several years later.
Their love story, and Mackebee’s unique proposal, was documented by The New York Times.
Tyler Combs, BA’20, was a contestant in the 2020 National College Championship. He finished as the first runner-up and pocketed $50,000.
Combs has been a fan of the popular game show since he was in elementary school, and he tried multiple times to become a contestant.
“I’d taken the online test for Jeopardy! once or twice in high school for the teen tournament and once freshman year of college,” he explains.
Luckily, his mom encouraged him to apply one last time.
“My most memorable experience [on set] was when I was taping my first episode and the legendary Alex Trebek walked up to me and started speaking in Russian,” Combs says. “It took all my brain power and every lesson I’d had in the language at IU to respond!”
To learn more about Combs’ Jeopardy! journey, read Who is Tyler Combs?
The Price Is Right
In 2008, Jason Hain, BS’10, went on vacation to Los Angeles and didn’t expect to end up on the set of The Price is Right, let alone be a contestant.
“I was on vacation with one of my friends, and he’s a really big fan of the show,” Hain told the Indiana Daily Student. “He was the one that got us the tickets, so really I just went along with him, and I ended up being called.”
Hain took home a $3,200 home-theater system.
In 2016, Lindsay Cate, BS’16, and her uncle spent nine hours waiting in the audience line for The Price is Right. They used that time to discuss show strategies and prices in case they were asked to “come on down” by host Drew Carey.
Cate ended up playing a game called “Side by Side.” The prize was a four-day trip to Seattle. Cate had to choose between two prices for the cost of a trip. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong price.
“I’ll never forget it,” Cate told the Indiana Daily Student. “I basically had a 50/50 chance, and I blew it.”
Chad Walters, MBA’06, was also a contestant on The Price Is Right in 2016 and got the chance to play the fan-favorite game Plinko.
“I walked away with $12,000 and a hair straightener, and while spinning the big wheel, Drew gave a shout-out to my French bulldog, Rooster,” he says.
Brandon Howell, BS’04, bought tickets for The Price is Right while visiting Los Angeles on a work trip.
To his surprise, he was chosen as a contestant.
“It was the most exhilarating feeling,” Howell recalls. “When I heard my name, I shot right up.”
He ended his time on the game show with a little over $36,000 in cash and prizes, which included a grill, a car, and a trip to Washington, D.C.
Former Hoosier basketball player Jared Jeffries, ’04, won big on The Price is Right in January 2023.
Jeffries played “One Away” on season 51, episode 74, and drove away in a new red Toyota sedan after guessing its price.
Wheel of Fortune
Friends Bob Eck, BS’85, and Ellen (Halsema) Mazen, BA’85, were victorious on Wheel of Fortune in the 1980s. Eck, who appeared on the show in 1987, took home more than $32,000, while Mazen, whose episode aired in 1986, won more than $10,000.
Kelsey (Kapral) Murphy, BS’09, appeared on Wheel of Fortune during its annual College Week in 2008. She received $17,000. More recently, Murphy won season 11 of MasterChef.
Emily (Fergason) Newell, BS’14, was a contestant in 2011. She won more than $31,000 in cash and prizes, including a trip through the Canadian Rocky Mountains from Calgary to Vancouver.
After graduation, Newell took the trip with her twin sister.
“[It was] truly a trip of a lifetime,” Newell says. “I invested a majority of the cash and took an additional trip to Australia with my best friend.”
It was the first round and the first puzzle of the episode. With a chance to win a trip to London and $1 million, Julian Batts, BS’17, MS’19, was ready to solve after filling in all the letters on the board.
However, the phrase looked unfamiliar to Batts.
“All I had to do was read the puzzle, but I had never seen the word Achilles spelled out,” Batts says.
Out came the now-notorious mispronunciation—”A-chillus,” with a hard “A.” The pronunciation was rejected (show rules).
Despite the hiccup, Batts finished the episode victorious and collected $11,700. But once his error aired on national TV, the internet was merciless, calling him the “worst Wheel of Fortune contestant ever.”
Find out how Batts dealt with the negative press in Wheel of Fortune Contestant Moves on From Competition.
Emily Hogg, MPA’17, was a contestant on season 37 of Jeopardy! She also appeared on ABC’s The Chase—a fast-paced quiz show where three competitors face off against a “trivia titan.”
“Being on the shows reminded me of how many people are in my corner,” Hogg says. “After my episodes aired, former pastors, old friends from IU, and classmates from high school reached out to express how proud they were.”
Hogg came in second place on Jeopardy! and walked away with $2,000. Her episode aired March 11, 2021.
“I didn’t really do anything crazy or fun with my winnings,” Hogg says. “I used some to invest and pay down my student loans.”
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Elika Preston, BAJ’00, and Matthew Zimmerman, BAJ’00, PhD’14, doubled up and won big on season three of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in 2004. The couple, engaged at the time, were contestants on a unique “Play to Pay for Your Wedding” edition of the program. They went home with $100,000 cash and wedding rings after choosing to walk away from the $250,000 question.
“Out of hundreds of couples who tried out, we were one of eight couples who ended up in NYC for filming and one of five who ended up on the show,” Zimmerman says. “We had no clue how we would pay for any kind of wedding, especially one [that] would be worth the trip [to California] for our Indiana University friends.”
Most of the experience was a blur for Preston and Zimmerman, and they admit that most of their memories of the show come from rewatching their episode on YouTube.
Eugene Byon, MS’97, is no stranger to game shows. Over the course of two decades, he’s won more than $33,000 and various prizes on five game shows—Wheel of Fortune (season 15), The Price is Right (season 43), The $100,000 Pyramid (season one), Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (seasons 16 and 17), and Let’s Make a Deal (season 13).
“I’ve been crazy about game shows ever since I was in diapers yelling ‘come on down’ in front of the TV [while] watching The Price is Right,” he says.
Byon’s game show experiences stretch beyond being a contestant. He co-hosted HQ Trivia in 2019 and appeared as a “Super Fan” on 25 Words or Less in 2022.
Stephen Hofer, BA’76, was a new Californian in 1980 when he appeared on five episodes of Bullseye, a game show hosted by The Dating Game personality Jim Lange. Stephen won $29,000 in cash, which he used for a down payment on his first home, and prizes, including a trip to French Polynesia.
“I was on my fraternity’s College Bowl team at Indiana University. People told me, ‘You’ve got such an incredible memory for historical facts and trivia. You should try and get on a game show,’” says Hofer. “So, when I moved to Los Angeles after law school, I thought, ‘Well, why not?’”
Hofer spent two days on the set of Bullseye. Shortly after, he learned that he’d passed the California Bar exam.
“One of the partners [at my law firm] who had heard about my success on the game show told me, ‘You know, Steve, not every week in Los Angeles is going to be this good,’” he recalls.