On Life, Gratitude and Lessons of Jeopardy!
David Sibley ’07 M’08 came home with more than his winnings.
When David Sibley ’07 M’08 learned that he’d be a contestant on “Jeopardy!,” he had only a few expectations.
“My hope was to see how the magic was made, and that I wouldn’t severely embarrass myself,” he says.
“And when I lost, I’d have a great story to tell.”
Mission accomplished, and then some.
Sibley, an Episcopal priest in Walla Walla, Washington, mounted a four-day winning streak and raked in more than $78,000 before being “Pannulloed,” a term Sibley coined for then reigning “Jeopardy!” champion Cris Pannullo.
‘I SURPASSED MY WILDEST DREAMS’
Sibley says keeping a loose hold on the experience and not taking himself too seriously were keys to his success. Taping for the show on Aug. 8, Sibley arrived at Sony Pictures Studio in Culver City, California, fully anticipating a loss.
“Somehow, I got picked to play in the first game against the returning champ, and somehow, I won the game. I thought, ‘Well, this is pretty cool. I get a bonus game now.’ I didn’t embarrass myself. I won – I never won’t be a ‘Jeopardy!’ champion now,” he says.
Then he won the second game and got to play again. Sibley was gunning for a fifth game because a five-game winner is guaranteed a spot in Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions.
He remembers “feeling very Zen” as the fifth game unfolded.
“When the last daily double (a chance for contestants to double their winnings) went off the board and Cris had put the game out of reach, I thought, ‘This has been fun, you know?’” Sibley says. “I had a really fun day I won’t forget. I surpassed my wildest dreams and got to play four free games of ‘Jeopardy!’ I never thought I’d play.” He says his experience in front of a congregation – and immersing himself in the moment – helped him to perform under pressure.
“I think by embracing the whole thing as an opportunity rather than a moment that must be conquered allowed me to perform better.”
Once he learned he would appear on the show he watched as many “Jeopardy!” episodes as he could, all the while practicing with his improvised clicker – a retractable pen.
BEWARE THE ANGRY-BUZZ
Sibley’s multi-day run was marked with flashes of brilliance and moments he wishes he could revisit.
Appropriately, the Furman chemistry major ran the category, “Non-Nye Science Guys,” in which he was relieved to give the correct response: Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize winner who developed a model of the atom. “I’m glad I didn’t disgrace my chemistry degree. I would never live it down if I’d gotten the wrong name,” he says. Another moment came when he conflated the image of Beck with that of Ed Sheeran in the category, “One-Named Rockers.”
Turns out Sibley was subjected to an endless Sheeran playlist in his Uber ride the morning of taping. (He’s not a fan.) Visions of Sheeran lingered in his head when he saw the photo of Beck.
“‘It’s my enemy from that morning, he must be vanquished!’ I remember thinking. So, I buzz in rather quickly, very confidently, and reply ‘Who is Ed Sheeran?’ And before the words have finished escaping my mouth, I realize what I’ve done – I have angry-buzzed in with the wrong answer.”
Sibley advanced despite the misstep. “If you’re appearing on ‘Jeopardy!,’ you’ve got to be prepared to be wrong in front of a million people. And that’s okay because that’s part of life.”
A PLATFORM FOR SUPPORT
The freedom that came with treating each game as a gift was just one of the takeaways from Sibley’s time in the limelight. Another was the overwhelming support he received from friends, the Furman chemistry department, family and parishioners. The experience also showed him that you don’t always get to see how much other people are invested in you or care about you.
“When you get that moment, you should soak it up because that sort of love can help get you through when things are really tough,” says Sibley, recalling the tweets, emails and pictures of friends enjoying watch parties with their kids. “And not because I could answer a few questions on national TV, but because there was some connection that made it important to any number of people to see me and to reach out to me.”
Through those connections, it became apparent that he was creating a “weird little ‘Jeopardy!’ platform,” a Twitter following of 5,000, and he seized it to offer his support of the LGBTQIA+ community.
“I realized people are paying attention, and it won’t hurt to say something.” So, he did, tweeting, “I’m sure the occupation of ‘Episcopal Priest’ is traumatizing or triggering for some #Jeopardy fans, so I want to be unequivocally clear: this priest is 100% affirming of the lives, loves and vocations of LGBTQIA+ people.”
Later he tweeted, “God loves everyone without exceptions.” That kind of unconditional affirmation is what Sibley received from the Furman chemistry department as he wrestled with whether to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry or follow a path of ordained ministry.
“(If I chose the ministry) I worried I would become the black sheep of the department – or be cast into the outer darkness where there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth,” Sibley jokes. “Yes, the faculty was forming me into a good scientist, but more than that, my Furman experience was about pulling all the threads of my life together.”
He notes the influence of Professor of Chemistry Paul Wagenknecht and retired professors Noel Kane Maguire and Lon Knight and others in the department who showed him “unrelenting support” regardless of his career choice.
“All the lessons, both as a scientist and as a person, continue with me to this day. I learned how to think analytically in the chemistry department in a way that I’m not sure I could have anywhere else. And I continue to apply that in my job as a priest,” says Sibley, who ended up defending his master’s in chemistry one day, graduating the next, then two days later, packing to move to New York City for seminary.
“Furman made me who I am in many important ways. I remain in deep gratitude to the chemistry department and the whole university,” he adds. “It’s an intrinsic part of who I am and something I value so much.”
He’s happy to be home with his wife, Em, and baby, Nora, who now has a nice head start on college funding thanks to his winnings.
For now, Sibley will enjoy “Jeopardy!” as the fan he’s always been. He’ll also be waiting on word from the producers on a possible bid to the Tournament of Champions.
And if Sibley gets the nod? “I’ll be there in a heartbeat.”