Local resident competes on ‘Jeopardy!’

Santa Clarita Naval officer Phillip Howard, right, competes on “Jeopardy,” pictured with the game show’s host Alex Trebek, left. Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

For years, Santa Clarita resident Phillip Howard has watched “Jeopardy!” with his wife, always hoping to one day have the opportunity to compete.

“We have this unspoken agreement, (where) we always shout out the answers as soon as we finish reading the clue, but whenever (the) final comes up, we wait and hold our answers to see if we’re correct at the end,” Howard said. 

This past fall, his lifelong dream finally came true, as he was given the chance to appear on the game show’s 37th season.

What Howard never expected was that just a month after the episodes he was featured in aired, the show’s beloved host, Alex Trebek, would die at the age of 80 after losing his battle with pancreatic cancer.

Persistence is key

Howard and his wife had been taking the online tests, which allows anyone to test their luck at getting on the show, for a couple of years to no avail. 

It wasn’t until this past year that his test results earned him the call he’d been waiting for: a real audition to be on “Jeopardy!”

After his virtual audition, which included another online test along with a practice game, went smoothly, Howard got the offer to appear on the show. 

“It was exhilarating,” Howard said. “I had been to a taping of the show a couple of years before (when) my wife gave me tickets to the show as a birthday present … but to get a chance to compete was phenomenal.”

The experience

Once he’d gotten over the initial shock, Howard said the entire experience became a lot of fun, as he got the opportunity to really compete. “Everybody was buoyant, cheerful, helpful and it was just a really pleasant experience from start to finish.” 

During commercial breaks, Howard even got the opportunity to chat with Trebek, who asked him about his time as a Navy reservist. 

“(He asked) about the ships that I was on, and he shared with me a story of when he was on a tour of a ship, and that right there was a very personal interaction that meant a lot to me,” he added.

Howard also recognized the great lengths the show goes through to ensure that the show is fair, as well as how fast paced the production moved.

“That’s probably the biggest thing that I took away from the experience was how fast everything moved,” Howard said. “It’s a blink of an eye, and then all of a sudden, you’re in ‘Double Jeopardy’ and then final — and it’s over.” 

He also recalled quickly learning not to buzz in too early, as the buzzers aren’t enabled until Trebek is done reading the question.

“You see people clicking in like crazy, (but) if they click too early, it disables their buzzer for a half second, so you’ve got to get the timing just right,” he explained. “There were several questions that I buzzed in too late … and it’s mildly frustrating, but you don’t have time to dwell on it. You just move on and get the next clue.”

Hearing the news of Trebek

“Obviously, he was something special, and he meant something different to everybody, but for those of us that appeared on the show and got to banter with him a little bit — even at the socially distant level — it felt like losing a cousin or an uncle or someone important to you, a member of the family,” Howard said. 

Howard vividly recalls the moment he learned of Trebek’s death while at a drill weekend for the Navy, taking it with the same impact he would the death of a family member, he said. 

“It was bittersweet,” he added. “I got the chance to appear on the last season of ‘Jeopardy’ that featured Alex Trebek, I got to talk to him and interact with him directly on a slightly personal level.” 

His takeaways

Howard left the show a two-day champion, with $44,000 in his pocket. Even so, he said he’d been disappointed he hadn’t made it farther.

“I did better than average, not as well as I would have hoped of course, but I am very happy and pleased with my performance,” he said. “At the end of the day, when you lose, all you do is sit there and think, ‘He played a hell of a game,’ (because) we’re not even really competing against the other players, it’s more competing against ourselves: Do I know this? Do I not? Can I make an educated guess based on the clues that are provided? And that’s how I looked at it.” 

For Howard, walking away a winner was gratifying, though he said the experience itself was definitely more valuable than the winnings.

“If I had walked away and did last place after my first appearance, I still would have been happy,” he added. “I competed on ‘Jeopardy!’ I got to meet Alex Trebek. I met some great people, other contestants, I had fun watching that whole week. … I take away the warm glow of retrospect, and I also have digital copies of my episodes, so I can relive the experience any time I want.” 

His experience left him thinking that persistence really does pay off, and he encourages others to pursue their own dreams. 

“I would encourage anyone who values knowledge, anyone who likes trivia (or) learning more about the world, to keep at it, to keep studying, keep reading, and to take the online test and try out for ‘Jeopardy’ because you’ll surprise yourself with what you know,” he said. “We’ve got to learn more about the world in order to make it a better place.”

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