What is typhoid? What is a narwhal? What is a glockenspiel? What is Denali? Who was William Tecumseh Sherman?
Austin Rogers ’00 did not go into the Jeopardy! studio expecting to become an overnight sensation. Although he went in with the confidence of someone who has spent a good chunk of his life onstage, it would have been impossible to know he would leave Los Angeles with $411,000 in prize money, the fifth-longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history and that his success would lead to interviews on Good Morning America and in The New York Times.
His unique haircut, occasional profanity, propensity to bet big during the Daily Double and incomparable mimes during introductions won him fans in the audience, production team, and, eventually, all over the country.
“They didn’t try to curb my personality at all, they just tried to curb my swearing,” Rogers said. “After a game when we would go backstage to change, I’m just having so much fun. I’d link arms with the producers, we’d high five the audience. It became like a sporting event. They told me, ‘your life is going to change.’ And they were right. I did not anticipate this whatsoever.”
His life did change, as Rogers spent two weeks dazzling America with his knowledge of Australian politics, Greek mythology, Laurence Olivier, world geography and much more. To prepare for his debut, Rogers worked on his buzzer speed, and extensively studied previous episodes to get a sense of the game’s patterns. He also brushed up on his general knowledge of the world, but said that was something he does ordinarily, regardless of what he’s preparing for.
“I watched 50-100 episodes of Jeopardy!,” he said. “Every time I get asked this, it’s a different number, sometimes it’s 50, sometimes it’s 70, 100, somewhere in there. When I would get bored, I would watch a film adaptation of a classic book or movie. I would ask myself: what don’t I know about? But really, all of that is what I would have done anyway. In real life, I’m like that anyway. I sit down, I want to watch something interesting, so it was just an extension of my natural habitat.”
Rogers was quick to point out that the general knowledge is not where Jeopardy! champions differentiate themselves. According to him, the abilities of a Jeopardy! contestant are broken into three categories: general knowledge, speed on the buzzer and the intangibles, or ability to cope with “being under lights in front of the audience with a major celebrity on stage.” Players must bank on all three competitors knowing roughly “85 percent” of the same material, and that the buzzer and your stage presence are how people stand out. Rogers felt going in that his own background on stage and general personality gave him an advantage.
“I was cool as a cucumber,” Rogers said. “I’ve been on stage, I’ve been under the lights, I viewed that as a distinct advantage over my competitors. I’ve done auctions, I’ve done stand-up comedy, I host trivia at bars. I’m the center of attention at parties. That isn’t second nature to me. It’s just nature… I felt like I was in my living room, just shouting the answers at the TV. I didn’t feel like I was on stage.”
Rogers was cool enough to goof around during tapings. After initially bothering host Alex Trebek, his relaxed attitude on stage won over the host and the audience. Rogers had no qualms about reacting to missed questions before quickly moving on and getting back on track. He exuded that calmness from the moment the contestants were introduced, as he did a sequence of mimes that quickly became social media hits. According to Rogers, they were not planned, but rather a means of filling an awkward period of time.
“The first couple of times you hear your name, rank, serial number, you’re like, ‘haha, cool!’” he said.
“But then you realize, this is a really long time to stay with a fake smile on your face, I can’t stay like this, I gotta do something stupid. Every single time I wanted to plan ahead [for the mime] but I forgot each time and made it up on the spot,” Rogers said. “Except for the conducting one, that one was planned, but 90% of them were spur of the moment.”
Two decades ago, before lighting up Trebek’s studio, Rogers was just another Blue Monkey running around playing ultimate frisbee on Shaw Field. He helped to run the team’s finances until the checkbook was taken away from him.
“I blew so much money on beer,” he said. “One year I helped organize our spring break trip, it was amazing, I blew this money on a three-story mansion with a veranda. Everyone had their own bedroom. After that, they took the checkbook away from me.”
Rogers was a history major at Macalester, and almost picked up a music major, as well. He was one class short as a senior, when he slept through a piano exam, and opted not to make it up.
“I think of myself as a music major, I just didn’t sit and play chopsticks for 15 minutes,” Rogers said. “I’m terrible at the piano.”
His exploits on Shaw Field and in Old Main did not detract from his work ethic. While a student, Rogers worked almost full-time at Starbucks on Ford Parkway to help pay his way back and forth from his hometown of Westchester, New York. While other students were off volunteering, Rogers worked 30-40 hours a week as a barista, and made time to have fun.
“I did not mind working really hard,” said Rogers. “Other people were off doing unpaid internships while I made money to entertain myself. College is the last gasp of your youth, it’s downhill from here. No one cares what your grades were in the real world, unless you want to be an academic, they just care if you have a degree. So [my philosophy was] enjoy yourself, have fun, knock it off, skip class, do work hard, but have fun.”
In spite of being a full-time employee and enjoying himself, Rogers found time to learn and grow in the classroom. He still remembers learning to think in a different way in a class taught by History Professor Emeritus Paul Solon. According to Rogers, Solon was conservative by Macalester standards, and forced his students to challenge the status quo in a way that spoke to him.
“He had a contrarian worldview in an academic setting, which challenged the Macalester arch-liberal status quo,” he said. “This wasn’t typical Macalester history, reading Howard Zinn. He was teaching and engaging us with mainstream history, the history is written by the victors stuff. By knowing that we could then critique it in a different way… We got to look into that, and could open a dialogue.”
His time spent inside and outside of the classroom undoubtedly made an impression on Rogers, and he felt that one of the best parts of his time at Macalester was the friends he made. He remains in close contact with a number of his fellow students. One of his good friends, Ryan Elder ’00, now lives in Los Angeles and was able to spend time with him during the Jeopardy! recordings.
Rogers said that one of the things that made his success on Jeopardy! so special was that he and his close friends from Macalester are all hitting periods of success at roughly the same time in their lives. They have followed unique paths, and their diverse variety of success reflects the breadth of students that Macalester draws. Elder is a composer for the hit show “Rick and Morty,” while another good friend, Sean Quirk ’00, studied Tuvan throat singing on a Fulbright scholarship after graduating and was accepted into the Tuvan National Orchestra. He now manages and interprets for a Tuvan ensemble named Alash, traveling the world with them. Patrick Guarasci ’00 owns his own political consulting firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with clients like Stacey Abrams and Randy Bryce, while Lucas McCann ’00 is the Director of Strategy at Jump, a strategy and innovation firm.
“Now that we’re all reaching 40, we’ve all carved out our own little niches,” said Rogers. “Everyone sort of clicked 18 years after college.”
In spite of Rogers’ recent success, and the whirlwind nature of the last few weeks, he has no intention of getting ahead of himself. He has every intention of making sure he files taxes properly on his winnings, and that he has a long-term career path lined up before he begins spending the money. Rogers is a bartender at The Gaf West, an Irish pub in Manhattan, and is hoping to parlay his 15 minutes of fame into one of the new career paths that have opened up for him. Since going on Jeopardy!, web and media companies have expressed interest in him, and he stills has to figure out his next step.
“Your 15 minutes is fleeting, and capitalizing on it is crucial,” he said. “I want to leverage this remarkable experience into a meaningful career, leverage these offers to do various things, and they’re all so amazing but I have to decide what is the most amazing out there. I have to capitalize on my luck and good fortune to make sure my life is taken care of going forward.”
While Rogers’ run on Jeopardy! may have ended, his fans have another performance to look forward to. On Nov. 6, he will compete in Jeopardy!’s Tournament of Champions, a two-week long competition. When asked about the tournament, he replied simply that we will have to “wait and see what happens.”
In spite of the long term perspective he has, that’s not to say Rogers hasn’t thought about how to spend the money at some point. He’s already dreaming of an impromptu visit to London’s Emirates Stadium to watch Arsenal Football Club, and wouldn’t mind owning a nice car at some point. For now, he said he will think about his next steps, get back to work at the pub and return to making his favorite drink, a perfectly pulled, two-pour pint of Guinness.
Correction: A past version of this article miss-attributed the photo to “Aaron Rodgers” rather than “Austin Rodgers”. We apologize for the mistake.