Quiz-show whiz has stopped coasting

Catching Up With ... Brad Rutter

Dropout/slacker has won $3 million on "Jeopardy," beating Ken Jennings

June 12, 2005|By Alfred Lubrano | Alfred Lubrano,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

LANCASTER, Pa. - Brad Rutter is proof that the gods keep an eye out for slackers.

The 27-year-old Johns Hopkins University dropout and former record-store worker beat quiz-show legend Ken Jennings on Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions on May 25, winning $2 million.

Add that to the Jeopardy! booty he has scored since he first played the game in 2000, and his total is $3,255,102, making Rutter the biggest TV game-show winner in history, according to the show's people.

Not exactly tied to the fast track - "I'm not ambitious and I don't need to work for The Man" - Rutter is an amiable guy with a "flypaper memory" that allows him to capture and keep stray facts that he then marshals for money. His easy demeanor and sharp features remind you a little of Zonker in the comic strip "Doonesbury."

People enjoy stories about guys like Rutter, the nondescript Quentin Tarantinos of the world who somehow bolt from behind the counters of record shops or video stores and do something amazing, or at least unusual. Their relieved parents no longer have to provide lengthy explanations about why their kid seems content not to join the rat race.

On a recent afternoon, Rutter is walking through his downtown neighborhood in this city of 56,000 about 60 miles west of Philadelphia, signing autographs and acknowledging fans. The other day, the ceiling in his living room collapsed while he was on a trip to see friends. Most people freak when their residences pancake, but, hey, the landlord knocked a few bucks off the rent, so everything is cool.

The unflappable game boy heads for the Square One Coffeehouse and takes a seat in the back behind a hot cup.

The son of a stockbroker and a housewife, Rutter was always a decent student with a huge appetite for reading, history being a favorite subject. He was gifted enough to attend the Center for Talented Youth program at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1990s. He'd spend a few years there in college, too, studying English before leaving.

"My attention span was not great," he says. "I was a slacker and I could coast."

There was a Quiz Bowl team in his high school that competed in knowledge contests with other schools. In his head, Rutter began cataloging island chains and U.S. first ladies, Shakespeare quotes and Asian history.

In the coffee shop, a guy playfully asks if he can touch Rutter, who laughs good-naturedly. No-pressure attention is fun.

"The phone's been ringing off the hook," he says, recounting the buzzing media calls he has gotten. "People are congratulating me, but it's not fawning. Giving autographs is flattering."

Rutter says he's glad not to be as well known as Jennings. The kind of ceaseless attention he saw Jennings get on Manhattan streets convinced him that "it's better to be rich and not famous." He adds that at least so far, he hasn't exactly been inundated with endorsement offers.

Rutter is a surprise. All of America had thought Jennings was the man, after he'd accumulated $2.5 million during 74 consecutive days of Jeopardy! play last year.

But Rutter was there under the radar, having been a contestant at various times over the past five years. It began with a spring 2000 appearance that netted him two Chevrolet Camaros and $55,102. Those were the days when a contestant could compete for no more than five days, and Rutter had done the maximum.

He returned home and gave his brother one of the Chevys. Rutter kept it all simple: He continued working at his record-store job and hanging out with friends. It was a life choice. He knew Jeopardy! would call in a year for a championship tournament.

"No sense making plans to get a job or finish school at Johns Hopkins, which I just wasn't getting anything out of," he says. "Life was waiting to go back on Jeopardy!"

A week after the 9/11 attacks, Rutter flew back to Los Angeles to do the tournament. Most Americans were afraid to fly then, but he didn't worry. "Hey, there were only five people on the plane," he remembers. "It was great."

On a closed set with no audience because of safety concerns (the applause would be added later), Rutter won $100,000. He once again returned to his job at the record store and bought a lot of CDs.

In March 2002, Jeopardy! called Rutter to play in its Million Dollar Masters Tournament. Answering a question about Thomas Jefferson being the only elected vice president to go on to serve two full terms as president, Rutter became the first millionaire winner in the program's history.

Then last month, he won the $2 million and beat Jennings by coming up with the Double Jeopardy question, "Who were [Scott] Carpenter and [Gordon] Cooper?" The answer was, "These names of two original Mercury astronauts, who orbited Earth in May 1962 and May 1963, are also occupations."

Jennings, a good sport to the end, didn't know the right answer, but wrote, "Go Brad!" on his answer screen.

Asked the question it seems he's asked nearly every seven seconds - what's he going to do next? - Rutter smiles. Last spring, he produced and hosted a small quiz show for high schoolers called InQuizitive, which is broadcast on the Harrisburg, Pa., UPN affiliate station. It's on hiatus until November, but Rutter would love to continue with the program and build an audience.

Meanwhile, he'll take $500,000 of his winnings and invest it (Dad's a stockbroker, remember). Who knows what he'll do with the rest of the money?

One thing's certain, he says. "This has bumped up the price value of my Christmas presents for my family and my girlfriend."

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