On Thursday night, three apparently bright and upstanding citizens—an English teacher, an attorney, and a banker—inspired Alex Trebek to threaten them with his own death.
The Jeopardy! host did not perish, fortunately for us all, because his threat—“If you guys ring in and get this one, I will die”—went unaddressed. His contestants did not ring in, thus completing one of Jeopardy!’s rarest and most ignominious feats: an entire category gone by without a single contestant ringing in once—what’s called a “triple stumper” by Jeopardy! fans—for any of the five clues. The contestants did not buzz in and then get the answers wrong. They did not even do that thing that competitors sometimes do, scrunching up their faces like the answer is just on the tip of their tongues. They didn’t wave their fists when the right answer was read to communicate that they should’ve known. No: The three contestants listened to each clue and then stood at their respective podiums in silence, fidgeting and looking bashful until the boop-boop-boop timer rang. They did this five times.
Did I mention that the category was “Talkin’ Football”? You know, America’s chosen pastime? The $14 billion-per-year behemoth? The sport whose championship match will, you might have heard, be played in two short days? The game that is all but synonymous with grit and red-blooded American gumption, with green fields and crisp autumns and Sunday afternoons and—for better or worse—the stars and stripes themselves?
Yeah. They didn’t know anything about it.
The contestants didn’t know what an option play was. (“Your choice: Do or don’t name this play in which the QB runs the ball & can choose to pitch it to another back.”) They didn’t know what offsetting penalties were. (“These ‘penalties’ are simultaneous violations by the offense & defense that cancel each other out.”) They didn’t know which team Tom Landry coached, or what a fair catch was (Trebek attempted to mime one for them afterward, in the apparent hope of belated enrichment). And they definitely didn’t know who the Purple People Eaters were.
“I can tell you guys are big football fans,” Trebek said after the first time his contestants blanked. He had no idea.
To be clear: Thursday’s contestants were no bozos. Reigning champion Ryan Fenster (the banker) entered the game on a three-day streak over which he’d accrued $67,399 in winnings. With a bold bet in Final Jeopardy, Fenster won again, adding $22,799 to his haul. Over the course of the episode, he and his competitors, Justin Earnshaw and Sara Helmers, showed off knowledge about literary terms and metals, adjectives and film.
But when it came to football—well. The category came in the first round, and the contestants worked their way through everything else on the board until it was the only thing left. And then there was nothing left for them to do but wait around and … not know. Triple stumper after triple stumper after triple stumper after triple stumper after triple stumper.
And so Fenster, Earnshaw, and Helmers join the pantheon of brainy Jeopardy! nerds who didn’t know a thing about sports.
Contestants have named Johnny Manziel an Alabama star, posited 191 as a feasible number of home runs in a single season, and stared stonily at a demonstration of a changeup. Last year, three contestants staggered their way through an “NFL Teams by Hall of Famer” category, which saw one competitor buzz in to guess the Colorado Rockies. (“No, sorry,” Trebek said, patiently.)
Some diehard football fans on Jeopardy! tonight pic.twitter.com/xY9PGickz2— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) September 25, 2017
In 2014, one contestant credited Magic Johnson with having 11 100-plus-assist seasons in the NHL. “Oh no,” said Trebek, his Canadian veneer cracking ever so slightly; The Washington Post wrote it up as “Magic Johnson. What is worst ‘Jeopardy’ answer ever?”
Jeopardy! contestants don’t always fail at sports questions: See competitors whizzing through a Sports Lingo category and a Baseball Stadiums section in 2015. Earlier this year, a trio made easy work of NHL Logos.
But then you have cases like the above one from 2010, when Meg Miller, who entered Final Jeopardy in the lead, named the Jacksonville Panthers as the only NFC team never to have made it to the Super Bowl. “I don’t actually care,” she said, shrugging as Trebek offered, politely, “It’s the Jacksonville Jaguars, I believe.” (Correct answer: the Detroit Lions.) But she’d seen the category—Super Bowl—and bet accordingly: She lost just $1,000, and won the game.
On Thursday night, Trebek seemed at times to be on the brink of despair. He frowned. He smacked his lips. He asked his contestants if he should give them a commercial break. When he arrived at the category’s final question, he drily suggested they look at it “just for the fun of it.”
Full-category triple stumpers happen from time to time on Jeopardy! But usually they occur on slightly more obscure categories: I asked The Jeopardy! Fan’s Andy Saunders if he could think of any others, and he pulled up a December 2016 game in which the three contestants were universally stumped by every question in a Civil War Literature category. Trebek has apparently been discussing Thursday night’s episode, which taped back in November, since it happened. Saunders says that at a Jeopardy! audition shortly after the game was taped, Trebek held up the episode’s NFL category as an example of the most difficult kind of trivia: the kind you simply don’t know.
Earnshaw, who came in second, had a laugh about it on Twitter as the episode aired:
What could be more in the Jeopardy! spirit than pledging to fill in those meddlesome gaps in knowledge?