Jason Zuffranieri moved from Western New York to Arizona when he was 8, but he never stopped being a fan of the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres, even as the Bills were losing four straight Super Bowls.
“So I was kind of the go-to guy at school to feel sorry for,” Zuffranieri cracked in a telephone interview.
Even though he lost Thursday night after 19 straight wins, no one is feeling sorry for him now.
Zuffranieri, 42, who considers Phoenix his hometown and also roots for Arizona sports teams, is now tied with David Madden as the fourth longest-running contestant in the history of the TV show "Jeopardy!"– behind Julia Collins, James Holzhauer and Ken Jennings.
Zuffranieri added $2,000 to his total for second place to winner Gabe Brison-Trezise on Thursday's episode, but he texted that figure isn't usually added to his official winnings total of $532,496 in his epic run. He had led Thursday until the "Final Jeopardy!" question. He had the wrong answer, while Brison-Trezise answered correctly.
"It's a sad way to lose but I had a lot of good fortune during this run and it finally ran out," wrote Zuffranieri in a text after Thursday's loss. "But wow, what an experience!"
At episode's end, host Alex Trebek told viewers Zuffranieri eventually will be back to play in the Tournament of Champions.
Several members of his family rooted him on in Buffalo, which he returns to every year or two for family events.
Having left Western New York at such a young age, his primary memories are playing video games at the former Como Mall, going to church across the street from the mall and going to Zorba’s Texas Hots in Depew near his home with his father.
He has made plenty of TV memories now. His incredible 19-game hot streak was even more amazing considering it took Zuffranieri nine times to qualify for the show. He failed several times to get by the second round when contestants must pass another test, play a practice game and do an interview in which prospective contestants are asked what they do for a living and what they would do with any winnings.
“I think they're just looking to see if your telegenic or interesting or whatever,” said Zuffranieri. “The first three (second) tests I failed, and the first five times I did the practice games they didn't want me.”
It is hard to understand why Zuffranieri failed the interview stage at all since he certainly has a more pleasant personality than Holzhauer.
While some viewers considered Holzhauer, who earned $2,426,216 in 32 wins, a cold, cocky know-it-all, Zuffranieri was modest. He even demurred from being classified as a rocket scientist by his brother Benjamin Zuffranieri Jr., a Buffalo lawyer.
Before becoming a math teacher at an Albuquerque private school, Zuffranieri worked at Sandia Labs in the Department of Energy complex as a reliability analyst who did reports on how long something could last based on its design.
“Some of that did involve space travel and satellites and stuff, but rocket scientist may be stretching it a little bit,” said Zuffranieri. “I think I was more of a reliability analyst, some of which involved rockets.”
Zuffranieri has a pleasant on-air personality, and he practically seemed surprised by some of his correct answers.
He also gave the show some poignant personal moments.
When he was in high school and unable to knot a tie, his father knotted it around his own neck, gave it back to his son and told him he could loosen and tighten it from then on.
Zuffranieri wore it twice on “Jeopardy!" in honor of his father, Benjamin, who died on July 26, a few days after Zuffranieri’s first show of the new season was taped.
In another memorable moment, his mother attended an episode in which Zuffranieri made a final “Jeopardy!” wager that ended with him earning $41,143, which stood for her birthday of April 11, 1943.
“I know James Holzhauer was doing stuff like that,” said Zuffranieri of betting for a sentimental reason. “That’s something I had been wanting to do for like 20 years. Wouldn’t that be nice? To finally get that end with her in the audience. I thought it was it was such a lovely moment – and she didn't even notice.”
He laughed loudly as he told that story.
When they watched it again later, Zuffranieri told his mother to be on the lookout.
“And she still didn't notice,” he added. “I said, 'Didn’t you see the score?’ And she was very touched.”
Zuffranieri’s determination to be on “Jeopardy!” was apparent from all the times he tried to make the program.
"There's lots of trivia games and lots of other game shows and friends would say, ‘Why don't we try out for that music game show or "Family Feud," or whatever else.' As much as I like those, I always wanted to be on this one.”
He watched Holzhauer’s run and adjusted his strategy to suit his own skills.
“I think what he did was so smart for his level of talent that he would wager so much bigger on daily doubles and ‘Final Jeopardy!’ because he's just got even more knowledge than basically anybody there's ever been,” said Zuffranieri.
“I took a more cautious approach on the daily doubles and stuff because … I am more likely to miss those. But starting at the bottom of the board (for the more difficult answers worth more money) I think was great … For my game, I think it helped a great deal.”
During his lengthy run, he feels he probably got to know Trebek better than most contestants.
“But he maintains a distance I think in the interest of professionalism,” said Zuffranieri. “It's three people and it's their lifelong dream to be up there and I think if he sort of had any attachment to one over the other two that could lead to a negative experience. I would say during commercials he takes questions from the audience, they ask him anything and he responds immediately with something witty usually. Those are somewhat revealing.”
As regular viewers of the show know by now, Trebek is working while being treated for pancreatic cancer.
“In my estimation, if you didn't know he was dealing with stuff you never would have guessed it because he's an absolute trooper. He's so professional,” said Zuffranieri. “In general, I thought he was on top of his game now as he ever was despite the agony that he's going through.”
It wasn’t an easy taping schedule for Trebek or the contestants. Zuffranieri said five shows a day are taped, with contestants arriving at 7 a.m. for preshow paperwork and makeup, starting the games around 11 a.m. and finishing the five half-hour programs around 4 p.m.
He loaded up on fruit snacks and granola bars between episodes to try and stay sharp.
“I’ll be honest, personally I don’t keep sharp,” said Zuffranieri. “I think I would actually tail off on some of these games.”
It’s been a lucrative schedule for Zuffranieri, who has special plans for the money after half of it goes to taxes.
The final “Jeopardy!” question for Zuffranieri is: What is he going to do with his winnings?
The answer is: “I’m engaged to be married in December and … that's going to help maybe with the honeymoon and with some other things around the wedding,” said Zuffranieri, whose future wife’s name is April Dumont. “We also recently purchased a house that is quite an improvement on the one I currently live in.”