How 'Jeopardy!' host Alex Trebek taught me 'it's cool to be smart'

‘Jeopardy!’ host Alex Trebek dead at 80 after battle with pancreatic cancer

‘Jeopardy!’ host Alex Trebek died at the age of 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, the show announced.

Matt Napolitano is a sports reporter at Fox News Headlines 24/7. He appeared on the June 12, 2020, episode of "Jeopardy!" and shares this remembrance. 

There are few personalities who are such a fixture in television history quite like Alex Trebek. For me, he was a regular part of my childhood, five nights a week.

For 30 minutes a day, Trebek made it cool to be smart. You were rewarded for intelligence, you were seen as someone to cheer for, and that’s all because of the "Jeopardy!" host.

When he announced his stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis last year, I decided to make my dream of appearing on the game show a reality.

After auditioning multiple times, I got “the phone call,” as a producer for the show referred to it. I was going to be a contestant on "Jeopardy!"

I flew to Los Angeles in early March, as we were learning more and more each day about COVID-19, and the pure uncertainty of what was ahead for us as a country.

COVID protocols were in full force the day I filmed to ensure Trebek's safety given his compromised immune system: hand sanitizer plentiful, masks and gloves on all staff. The audience would only be made up of family and friends of contestants who made the trip.

However, on a day where WHO would announce a pandemic, nothing else mattered as Trebek took that stage. I sat there in the audience with my fellow contestants who were waiting to film their episodes. Waiting for my turn, he took audience questions about his favorite moments, his career advice and his love of Will Ferrell’s “Saturday Night Live” impression of him.

It would come down to the final episode to be taped that day where I would finally get my chance. Johnny Gilbert said my name and I hammed up it for the camera, and there he was: Alex Trebek. A man who despite a grim diagnosis and being in the fight of his life stood there as the reliable fixture that we all knew and admired for years.

We took a picture together during the commercial break and he asked about my interesting fact, where I talked about my reporting opportunities with Fox News Radio. The game went on, and while my heart and mind raced, Trebek was a calming presence at the podium.

On camera, I prayed to the heavens to get Final Jeopardy! right, which Alex took notice of, poking fun at me for throwing up that Hail Mary. I was correct and managed to finish in second place.

After the show, Alex couldn’t shake our hands because of the COVID-19 protocols. We did give each other a sort of “finger gun” situation that I could only credit to not knowing what to do with ourselves. From six feet away, he picked my brain about sports. He revealed his enjoyment of auto racing, discussing the Ryan Newman Daytona 500 crash that had just occurred the month prior and the similar feelings of uncertainty that loomed after that wreck, compared to the one that took the life of Dale Earnhardt in the same race back in 2001.

The episode was over. I thanked him and he thanked all of us contestants. Production would be shut down shortly after because of the pandemic. That episode would actually be the last new episode of "Jeopardy!" for quite a few months.

Alex Trebek previously said that his wife, Jean Currivan, has been the best support he’s had throughout his cancer battle.
(Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI)

I was relieved when I heard months ago of his eagerness to return to taping, thrilled to see new contestants get the same chance I had, and devastated to learn Sunday that he had succumbed to that horrendous disease.

As so many have expressed their gratitude and love for a true G.O.A.T., I will never forget my brief time on stage with an icon. Alex Trebek’s legacy will be something different to everyone, but for me, I’ll always remember … it’s cool to be smart.

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