HERRIMAN — The first thing the ninth- and 10th-graders in Steve Mond’s math class wanted to know when he came back to school in May with a $25,000 check for finishing third in the nationally televised “Jeopardy!” teachers tournament was this:
Are you going to retire?
Nope, Mr. Mond replied, he was still going to teach them math.
But, alas, his “Jeopardy!” career was now over.
For the last 34 years, ever since the age of 13, he’d harbored a dream of one day being on the TV game show. It hadn’t been easy getting there, but he’d finally done it, and now, in addition to the $25,000, he had a story to tell his students about perseverance, determination, and, most importantly, the sheer joy you get from knowing stuff.
“I just think it’s good to know things,” he says, “it makes the world so much more interesting.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Mond can remember clearly when the Alex Trebek version of “Jeopardy!” came on the air in 1984, the same year he became a teenager. He watched the show regularly as soon as he got home from school, sitting on the couch and answering the questions, or trying to.
A teacher at his school, William FitzGibbon, had infused in him a love for education. “He made me feel like I could learn anything,” remembers Mond. “It was very empowering. I didn’t learn to pass a test, I learned to learn. I got used to learning something new and connecting it to something old so it would get connected in my head and stick.”
Learning everything, of course, is what “Jeopardy!” is all about. The more Mond watched, the more he envisioned himself doing pretty well if he ever got on the show.
Then life intervened, or, more accurately in Mond’s case, school intervened. He went to the University of California, Berkeley and got a bachelor’s degree in economics. Then he went to U.C. Davis and got a law degree. Then he went to UNLV and got a master’s in sports management.
Now he knew a lot more stuff.
But he still hadn’t been on “Jeopardy!” and for one very good reason: He hadn’t applied.
“I was like the guy who prays to win the lottery his whole life,” he says. “Then he dies and complains to God and God says, ‘Morty, meet me halfway, buy a ticket.'”
Finally, in 2005, at the age of 34, Mond went through the formal process to be a contestant on the game show. He flew to Las Vegas to take a general knowledge test. He was one of 12 out of 100 who passed and then went through the interview phase of the process. The producers told him he had 18 months to be picked for the show. If he didn’t get a call he could try again.
He didn’t get a call. So he tried again. And again. And again.
Finally, in August of 2017 he traveled to Denver and aced the written test, as per usual, and after the interview got The Call.
He was invited to join 15 other schoolteachers for the show’s special 2018 teachers tournament.
During the taping in Los Angeles in March, he identifies three advantages that helped move him through the ranks and into the three-person final round.
One, he’d practiced at home while watching episodes of the show with a ballpoint pen he’d click instantly when he knew the right answers.
“That buzzer is more important than people think,” he says.
Two, he was not stage-struck. The lights and cameras didn’t bother him in the least — due to the fact that Mond was a child actor who appeared in dozens of advertisements, movies (including Steven Spielberg’s “1941”) and TV shows as a kid. He was in more than 20 episodes of “Diff’rent Strokes.” (He was Arnold Jackson’s friend Robbie Jason).
On the “Jeopardy!” set, “I was as comfortable as if I was in my own living room,” he says.
And three, he had all those one-thing-leads-to-another connections in his brain.
One of his crucial answers is a case in point. The clue from Alex Trebek was: “A Swedish scientist who is the father of taxonomy.”
Almost without thinking, Mond quickly clicked the buzzer and answered, correctly, “Who is Carl Linnaeus?”
“From however many years ago, I heard ‘science’ and ‘taxonomy’ and that name hit my brain,” he says. “It was all just up there.”
When the teachers tournament final round aired locally on KJZZ Ch. 14 in mid-May, RSL Academy High School, where Mr. Mond teaches, held a watch party. A mix of friends, faculty and students showed up to see him win his $25,000.
That’s when the students wondered if he was going to retire.
“They had no idea how much 25K could and could not buy,” he says.
But they could learn, their math teacher assured them. They could learn.