If you took the time to check out the title of this blog entry and click through to this page, you probably wondered what a story on a once popular trivia show that took the U.S. by storm when Regis Philbin put his first contestant in the hot seat back in 1999 could possibly have to do with sports. This hardly seems like the place to pose such a question. After all, Sportsideo was created in part to be an open forum for sports enthusiasts to talk about and share experiences surrounding athletics, not pop culture or television crazes. Over the next several paragraphs, I will do my best to explain and tie it all together.
If you scroll to the top of this page and read “About” Sportsideo, you will see that one of the core beliefs of the site’s founders is that “sports experiences improves the bonds and understanding between all people.” Sports can help create unique opportunities, build confidence in athletes young and old, and be the cornerstone for lifelong friendships. The last part of the previous sentence is what this post is all about.
When I was a Sophomore at the University of Connecticut, I first had the pleasure of meeting an incoming Freshman by the name of Matt Scherer. When we took the ice for the first captain’s practice, it became obvious pretty quickly that what he lacked in talent he made up for in work ethic. He was a good North-South skater, but wasn’t great at turning. With regards to keeping his head up and passing the puck, he wasn’t great at “sharing.” However, he was a self proclaimed pretty “awesome” teammate and eventually a line mate I would trust more then any player I ever played with. He went in to the corners with reckless abandon and came out with the puck (and a split open chin) more times then not. As his center, the “50/50” face-off’s would go your way about “90/10” when he was on your right as he would seemingly always be the first winger in. And most importantly, because he couldn’t really pass or turn, there was no over thinking the game when he was on the ice. You knew exactly where he and the puck were headed when he was in the vicinity. But for as much as I enjoy taking good natured verbal jabs at the simplicity of his game, for three years, Matt and I were teammates, line mates, and road roommates. We shared seats and stories on lengthy bus trips and the occasional beer and a few more stories many nights after we returned home.
The sport of hockey had created that special and unique bond between the two of us that has led to a lasting friendship that despite each being grown up, married and living 800 miles apart, has endured to this day.
When I graduated college in 2006, Matt had one year remaining at the University. I knew we would stay in touch and fully expected to be called upon in the years to come as the Best Man in his wedding or Godfather or Namesake of his first born child (Ok, I was kidding about this, but was confident we would maintain that bond built through sports). Yes, I fully expected that our three years of friendship on campus would lead to a lifetime of favors I would need to make good on down the road, I just never thought that the first would come so quickly or in the form it did just months after graduation.
In the Summer of 2006, Matt took some time away from what I am sure was his rigorous off season workout regimen and stopped by a local mall to take a test for a chance to appear on the “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” College Week. I am not making this up. I have no idea what would inspire a 24 year old rising Senior to swing by to take this test or if at that age he was even age eligible for “college week,” but he did….and he did well. He had a strong showing on the written test and was just enough of a total meathead that the producers knew he could keep an audience amused. They told him he had passed his written test and screening and was in a pool of applicants that might appear on the show that fall and they would be in touch. A few weeks before the taping, when Matt had returned to campus, he did in fact receive a call from the show’s producers and was invited to New York to sit next to Meredith Vieria for a chance to win 1 Million Dollars!
Excitement in the Scherer family household and the UConn Locker Room was sky high, family and friends alike overwhelmed with anticipation. But for the contestant, there are so many decisions you need to think about and make before taking one of game shows greatest stages.
What would he wear?
He opted for an ugly yellow dress shirt and tie, photo above.
Who would he bring to join him in the audience?
He wisely brought his loving girlfriend at the time and future wife, Lauren, who had encouraged him to tryout and who looked great as she supported from the front row
And most importantly, who would he call on when he needed a lifeline as his “Phone a Friend”?
A little background with regards to the final question. When you are selected to appear on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” you are asked to provide up to five “Phone A Friends” in advance you can then choose from depending on the question when the time comes and you need help during the show. Take a moment and think about that. Who would you choose?
One afternoon I was sitting at my office at a job I had started about a month before and Matt called me to explain he was going to be a contestant on “Millionaire” and he wanted me to be a “Phone A Friend.” With limited understanding of how the whole lifeline thing worked, my initial thought was “Sure, but if I am the smartest person you know and the person you would most trust with a million bucks on the line in a trivia game you should seriously re-evaluate your life and those you keep company with.” Matt then explained that you actually get five friends and he was looking for people that were not only intelligent but that had “expertise” in a variety of areas. Having five award winning Ivy League Physicists sounds great, but it may not be as helpful if the question he was stuck on had to do with the Yankees “Murderer’s Row” line up or a Brittany Spears chart topping single. No, he would need an eclectic group, and after calling his father Doug, his father-in-law Dr. Shook, and another friend from college with more pop culture knowledge then any grown man should have, he asked me if I would be willing to bring my myriad of otherwise useless knowledge to the phone that day if called upon. I of course obliged because that’s what friends do, pick up the phone when a buddy calls and needs them to answer a question with thousands of dollars on the line in front of a national television audience.
The taping was scheduled for a Monday that fall with the airing to be run about 6 weeks later. Matt provided the basic information regarding what was expected of the “Phone A Friend” and we were told to keep our schedules open and be ready to hop on a conference call at 7am that morning with one of the show’s producers for more details that day. I joined the conference call and awaited my instructions, figuring the entire time that even if he did need a “Phone A Friend” the chances were remote it would be me given that he had some other people on his short list who were significantly smarter then I. Still, I listened intently as the host of the conference call kindly outlined our day for us.
“You must be available at the number you have provided and that number must be a land line.”
“Several shows are taped each day so you may be called any time between 8am-5pm.”
“The call will come from a 212 number and once you pick up you will be connected live to Meredith Vieira and she will say hello, make small talk, and turn you over to Matt for the question.”
How could this go wrong? All I had to do was explain to my boss at my new job that I couldn’t leave my desk or attend any meetings that day because I “might be a Phone A Friend on Millionaire,” give up any eating and restroom privileges I had become accustomed to and enjoyed over the years because I had to be attached to my land line which nobody used any more for the next 9 hours IN CASE my friend called, and then if he did call, make sure I didn’t say anything that would make me sounds stupid or cost him a chance at 1 Million Dollars. Sounded pretty straight forward.
It was a long morning, and as the rest of the office began to break for lunch, I waited anxiously by my phone. The phone rang all day with one work related inquiry after another, but by 2pm, still nothing from Meredith. Then, just minutes before 3pm, the phone rang once again and this time flashed a “212” number. It was time.
I picked up the phone and as expected, it was none other then Meredith Vieira from Millionaire on the line. After a nice greeting and introduction, she informed me that my friend was at 16K and going for 25K but needed some help to get there before turning it over to Matt and giving us 30 seconds to work through the $25,000 question.
People always ask if you are at a desk with a land line and a computer, how hard could it be? 30 seconds seems like an eternity to google an answer to just about anything these days. Well, it’s not. I had a few things working against me. First, the 30 seconds starts immediately and the contestant usually takes 7-8 seconds to read the wordy question Millionaire has offered up. Second, despite being a college graduate, I was pretty much computer illiterate and could only type with two fingers. Around that time my wife once called my office and as I typed and talked she asked me “What’s that noise? Do you have a typewriter?” The year was again 2006, so no, I didn’t have a typewriter, but that should give you some indication as to just how vigorously each pointer finger came down on the keyboard when they excitedly found the letter they were looking for (I still type with those same two fingers to this day, but to paraphrase the late Dick Schaap, “I do so at a much quicker pace and with significantly shorter fingers). Anyway, the quick google look up sounds well and good, but it wasn’t happening. Our on air conversation went something like this:
Matt: In the Season 6 of the HBO series the Soprano’s what is the main ingredient in Johnny Cakes? Is it A. Blueberry or C. Cornmeal
(He had already used the 50/50 so I had a decent shot)
Me: Oh man, you should have called Brett!
(An old roommate from school and resident Soprano expert. I knew calling Brett was not an option, but figured it would add to the drama of an already tense situation)
Matt: Chris (nervously)…..
Me: Alright, repeat the choices.
Matt (Increasingly frustrated): Blueberry or Cornmeal, man!
Me: Ahhhh, I don’t remember anything about blueberries, I say cornmeal, final ans….beep beep
I had been officially hung up on as our 30 seconds of small talk had expired. Matt was now on his own and myself and the rest of the world would have to wait weeks to find out if he took the advice and won or lost. If he answered cornmeal and it was right, he would have $25,000 and couldn’t leave with less then that. If he answered and it was wrong, he would have walked away with just $1,000.
Six weeks later Matt gathered with his hockey team back on campus for a viewing party and I watched intently from an apartment 1,000 miles away in Atlanta. We all anxiously looked on as he worked his way through the first couple of “gimme” questions and continued to thrive on what might as well have been custom made questions for Matt through 4K, 8K, and 16K. Seriously, it was like the time Cliff was on Jeopardy on Cheers and all of the questions were about “Stamps From Around The World,” “Mothers and Sons,” and “Beers” only to blow it in Final Jeopardy. Through 16K, Matt couldn’t miss and looked confident every step of the way. But he was hung up on the 25K question and while I had the advantage of knowing he had made it that far and what the question was, when the show finally aired, I still didn’t know if he had taken my less then definitive advice or not.
Meredith: Well Matt, we ran out of time before you could ask if that was Chris’ final answer, but what do you think? If you go for it and hit, you walk out with a guaranteed $25,000. If you miss, you leave with $1,000.
Matt: (Long Sigh)
Meredith: What’s it going to be, Matt?
Matt: Well, he is my boy…..I’ll go C, Cornmeal, final answer…
Meredith: He is your boy, Cornmeal it is, you just won $25,000!
Matt: (Looks to the sky to thank the Lord, see photo above again)
My work being complete, I sat back calmly and enjoyed the rest of his network television debut, which lasted about 30 more seconds one more question before he answered incorrectly and walked away with his $25,000 check.
In the weeks that followed, colleagues who stood beside me as I took the Millionaire call from the office that day asked what the cut was for a "Phone A Friend," how much had my good friend given me for providing him with the answer that won him 25K instead of losing all but 1K. The sum certainly wasn’t going to change my friend’s life or put him in another tax bracket, but you still would have figured he would have kicked a guy a little something, you know, for the efforts. I am not sure what the going rate is, but I know I never received a dime!
In the years since I have jokingly asked him for that “9K” he owes me every once in a while, most recently, before I wrote this piece. His reply?
“The game is not called "who wants to be 1/40th of a millionaire?" for a reason.”
I suppose the lesson learned here is you can’t put a price tag on the friendships we make through sports or a value on a friend whimsically taking a stab at a 50/50 question, but a "Millionaire Prenup" isn't a terrible idea!