January 8, 2024

By Brennan Doherty, University Commuications

A Carolina sophomore got a second go at what’s typically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Rotimi Kukoyi’s appearance as the youngest contestant in the Jeopardy! quiz show’s Second Chance Tournament will air Jan. 9, more than five years after he competed in the Teen Tournament as a ninth-grader.

“It says right there in the paperwork — once you’re on this competition, only come back if you’re invited,” Kukoyi said. The Morehead-Cain Scholar, an undergraduate student at the Gillings School majoring in health policy and management and minoring in biology and chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, plans to become a physician.

Kukoyi’s invitation to return was a long time coming. Kukoyi had to drop out of Jeopardy!’s High School Reunion Tournament last year (which fellow Tar Heel Stephanie Pierson was a part of) because he had COVID-19. But the show’s producers promised him, “We’ll have you back for something later.”

This Halloween, one of the rare days he happened to wear his Jeopardy! hoodie, Kukoyi got a text from a show employee asking him to call. Soon enough, he was preparing for his second appearance in front of a national audience.

With a filming date of Dec. 6 (the final day of the fall semester), Kukoyi went to work. He created 9,000-plus flashcards, learning 800 to 1,000 per day while balancing schoolwork. You can never know enough on a show that requires knowledge on everything from Greek mythology to modern pop culture.

“I managed to somehow make time for it,” said Kukoyi, who also made headlines as a high schooler in Alabama when he received acceptances to each of the 15 colleges he applied to and received over $2 million in scholarships.

Rotimi Kukoyi posing for a picture of Alex Trebek and Ken Jennings.

Rotimi Kukoyi said he focused more on enjoying the whole Jeopardy! experience this time around. “More than anything, I wanted to make it a memorable experience, one that I just knew I’d be proud of no matter what the result was.” (Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

As he returned to the Jeopardy! studios for the first time since 2018, Kukoyi kept in mind some lessons from his debut. Among the most important: Don’t be too quick with the buzzer.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but there’s a staff member on the side who unlocks the buzzer for every clue by hitting a button. These lights on the side of the clue board flash, and that’s when the buzzer’s enabled,” he said. “If you buzz in too early, you’re locked out of ringing for a quarter of a second, which makes a huge difference as it all comes down to milliseconds.”

Since his last appearance, Kukoyi said Jeopardy! strategy has changed considerably because of the playing style of 32-game winner James Holzhauer. “Jumping around the board” from category to category is now more mainstream, as is hunting for daily doubles and placing large wagers.

“I did a lot of prep for that,” he said.

Kukoyi’s first appearance came with host Alex Trebek, the man synonymous with the show, two years before he died. Kukoyi said meeting and interacting with Trebek, whom he described as down-to-earth, was a great experience. This time around, he enjoyed having Ken Jennings as host and called him a “natural heir” to Trebek.

Beyond the coolness factor of being on the show and the friends he’s made through both experiences, Kukoyi said there are life lessons to be taken from Jeopardy! and applied to his future in medicine.

The show is all about questions, even requiring contestants to answer in that format. Asking the proper questions is crucial for healthcare professionals as well, a takeaway from an English class Kukoyi took last semester on medicine, literature and culture.

“It’s the idea that stories matter. And to get to those stories, the questions you ask matter as physicians,” he said.

After filming, Kukoyi raced back to Chapel Hill to study for his finals, nontelevised but nonetheless important.

“I got all A’s. So, you know, can’t complain.”

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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