I hate going so long without updating. It makes me feel digitally naked–with a strategically placed 404 because, believe it or not, this is still a family blog.
But there’s a good reason I’ve been scarce this week. Work has kept me busier than usual covering the fantastic accomplishment of a man in my hometown.
South Dayton, NY is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it drizzle drop of a place not far from Lake Erie. Its population of 600-700 people includes some Amish and probably a few cows who’ve gone undercover. In terms of priorities there are zero stoplights, one grocery store, two bars, two churches and three places to get pizza and wings.
If you ask a veteran South Dayton resident what the village is known for, you’ll receive one or both of two answers: Bill Bergey, a prominent NFL linebacker of the ’70s, was born here and scenes from the 1984 Robert Redford film The Natural were filmed here. Of the latter, the mayor at the time said it “was absolutely the biggest thing to have happened to South Dayton since the deer jumped through the post office window.”
It’s been more than 25 years since South Dayton has been on the map for anything, but one man has changed that and given the sleepy little village something it has uproariously gotten behind: Jason Zollinger.
For the majority of his 39-years-and-counting on this earth, Zollinger has dreamed of appearing on Jeopardy! (I’m not shouting; the show’s official title has an exclamation point at the end). Beginning at age 17, he attended every audition that came to the region, usually in Buffalo. Those eventually petered out, but online tests came up to replace them and he shifted to those.
It took 22 years, but last year Zollinger’s number finally came up. I had the pleasure of interviewing him following his taping in mid-November.
Jason is not the kind of man you immediately envision to appear on Jeopardy! On the surface, he appears to be just an average, blue-collar family man living on one of South Dayton’s dead end streets. Described by the show as an “engine assembler,” he works at a suffering local plant on the verge of layoffs. He attended college but never graduated, believing it was not for him. When he was called to New York City for the in-person auditions, he was the only one in his group not to have a degree.
The interview was more difficult than usual, given that Zollinger was contractually obligated not to reveal anything about his appearance, which wasn’t until Jan. 12. He could, however, speak of how it was a dream come true just to finally make it on the show and the look in his eyes told me he wasn’t lying.
Jan. 12 came and half the community filled Zollinger’s Restaurant, owned by Jason’s family, to watch his big moment. Towels inscribed with “Team Jason” were handed out for people to silently wave whenever he answered a clue correctly and a new flatscreen was purchased just for the event.
When you live in a place like South Dayton–when you watch all your old classmates leave for greener pastures and most attempts at new business and injections of life die out–you don’t hold high expectations. When someone in your hometown manages to break out, for however brief a moment, it’s something to be celebrated. The victory somehow counts for you as well and you back it, no matter what.
So when Jason had answered only one clue by the first commercial break, obviously struggling with the buzzer, everyone still cheered him on. He had made it on the show, at least. And after so long; after never giving up. It was his dream come true. That was really something. That was all any of us expected.
So if you go to Zollinger’s Restaurant, you still see the signs of South Dayton’s pride. An autographed Bill Bergey jersey is displayed above the bar. A poster for The Natural hangs framed on the wall.
And the towels still wave, for as of the date this was written, Jason Zollinger is the reigning 4-day champion with $86,404 in winnings.
So if you tune in on Monday, look for the guy at the first podium, wearing his “lucky tie” covered in photos of his daughter. I don’t know how much longer I’ll stay so busy, but it’s the first time in quite a while I’ve wanted to be.