Sophomore Advances on Jeopardy!

While most people can only imagine the thrill of competing on Jeopardy!, sophomore Rotimi Kukoyi has lived that dream twice.

Kukoyi, a 19-year-old Morehead-Cain Scholar from Hoover, Alabama, appeared as the youngest contestant in the popular quiz show’s Second Chance Tournament that aired Jan. 9. He competed in the show’s Teen Tournament as a high school freshman in 2018.

“It was super intimidating being the youngest,” Kukoyi, who’s majoring in health policy and management with minors in biology and chemistry, told the Review. “At first, the other contestants were a little shocked to see a college student. I don’t think they were expecting a Teen Tournament player. In the end, they were a super awesome group and very inspirational to me.”

The game was competitive, and heading into the Final Jeopardy round, Kukoyi was $600 behind the leader. The Final Jeopardy category was The Ancient World. The clue: “This text helped the soul, or Ka, navigate the journey into a region called Amenti.” Kukoyi answered correctly with, “What is the Book of the Dead,” wagering enough to win the competition by $1 and advance to the two-day final, which is scheduled to air Jan. 12 and 15. The winner of the two-day final will advance to the show’s Tournament of Champions Wildcard Contest, scheduled to air next week.

Kukoyi said as a child he was an avid reader of the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, specifically the Kane Chronicles about Egyptian mythology, and credits that for helping him with the Final Jeopardy question. “The other contestants didn’t have Percy Jackson growing up, so that gave me an advantage,” he said.

After competing on Jeopardy! in high school, Kukoyi said he dreamed about getting a chance to compete again. Last year, a COVID-19 infection forced him to drop out of the show’s High School Reunion Tournament.

“I was really surprised I was asked to be on the show again,” Kukoyi said. “Jeopardy! is something most contestants only do once. I was so excited to have a third chance, and this time I promised myself I would stay healthy.”

Kukoyi received a text on Halloween from a producer asking him to call the show. He did and learned he’d be making his second appearance Dec. 6, the last day of classes. While earning 17 credit hours, working internships and fulfilling other academic commitments, Kukoyi studied thousands of flashcards, played online trivia and practiced his buzzer timing to prepare. “I’d wake up at seven and go through a bunch of flashcards in the morning,” he said. “Between classes and even during some classes, I would go through flashcards. I would do school, make flashcards, eat and sleep.”

Rotimi Kukoyi competed in the show’s Teen Tournament as a high school freshman in 2018. (Photo: Jeopardy!)

Since his first appearance, Kukoyi said he noticed a change in strategy used by many Jeopardy! contestants, including so-called “Daily Double Hunting,” which involves calling on numerous categories rather than staying in one subject area.

“I practiced predicting Daily Doubles, where they were more likely and less likely to be,” he said. “Last time, I didn’t really do any flashcards or studying, but for the breadth of knowledge you can be tested on in adult Jeopardy!, I definitely wanted to be prepared.”

During his first appearance, Kukoyi met former long-time Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, who had a lasting impact on him and his fellow contestants. Kukoyi said Trebek met with the contestants’ parents after his first taping and told them “they had all raised great kids. When Alex Trebek passed in 2020, that was a moment we all reminisced about in our Teen Tournament group chat.”

Kukoyi wanted to dedicate his second Jeopardy! appearance to Trebek, so during Final Jeopardy! he wrote, “Thank you Alex :)” under his answer to pay tribute to the famous game show host.

When asked what he thought was the Jeopardy! category he had the most knowledge about, Kukoyi cited classic literature and mythology, though he acknowledged there’s one category in particular he’d love to see on the board. “My dream category would honestly be a soccer category,” he said. “I have never seen them do that, unfortunately.”

Besides two appearances on Jeopardy!, Kukoyi also gained national attention by being accepted to all 15 universities to which he applied, including Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University, and being awarded more than $2 million in scholarships. Kukoyi said he chose UNC over the other schools because of the quality of the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Of course, being offered the Morehead-Cain scholarship didn’t hurt either.

— Cameron Hayes Fardy ’23

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