Commentary: An open letter from a fellow game show loser

Posted at 6:37 PM, Aug 06, 2013
and last updated 2013-08-06 21:16:22-04

By James Dinan

(CNN) — I’ve been in Thomas Hurley III’s shoes.

Hurley is the 12-year-old Connecticut boy whose misspelling of “Emancipation” during a Kids Week episode on “Jeopardy!” took social media by storm. Fans are sharply divided over whether the show should have accepted his Final Jeopardy answer, even though he would have finished second regardless.

But what we forget is that a young man’s honest mistake was broadcast to millions of people across the United States and Canada. No matter the age, realizing that your “blooper” will be seen my many can be very embarrassing.

Twelve years ago, it was me standing below the “hot lamps” of a TV studio, appearing on the Regis Philbin version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” It took dozens of phone tests over a two-year period to make my dream of being on a TV game show a reality, and it came crashing down in a matter of minutes.

I was defeated on a $500 question on collar stays — those tiny strips used to keep a shirt collar flat. I always wore dress shirts with the collar buttoned down, so “collar stays” were foreign to me. Not wanting to burn my third and final lifeline, I guessed and came up short.

The first few days after that taping were rough. I struggled with sleep, replayed the game over and over in my head, and wondered whether all those years of trying to qualify were worth it. I even apologized to my family and “Phone a Friend” lifelines for letting them down.

The episode finally aired, and I didn’t bother watching it. The show broadcast around the time I headed to work, so I spent that period walking to the subway, knowing that when I got to the office, my co-workers would have watched the show.

But then something happened.

As I soon as I stepped into the office, my co-workers gave me a round of applause. They told me that they were proud that I got on the show, and that it didn’t matter whether I won a million dollars or nothing at all. My boss dropped off one of his collar stays on my desk, with a note that “you’ll always remember.” For the next 30 minutes or so, everyone wanted to ask me about the “Millionaire experience”: What was Regis Philbin like? How long does it take to record a 60-minute show? etc. It turns out that no one was ashamed at my performance after all. They were just happy that a lifelong dream came true.

When I got home that morning, there were two messages on my answering machine. The first was from a teen who wanted to remind me what collar stays were (I expected at least one prank call of that level). The second was from what sounded like an older woman who wanted to congratulate me for being a “good sport” and a “gracious loser.” She said that it had to be tough for me to relive an embarrassing moment all over, but incidents like those only make you stronger. And she was right.

Social media was at its infancy in 2001 — it was essentially e-mail and Yahoo! message boards for me — but I heard from others who sympathized with my plight. I was even told of a possible petition to get me back on “Millionaire” under the guise that the collar stays questions was “too hard for $500.” I asked that the petition drive not take place — maybe the question was hard, but I lost fair and square.

I eventually did return to “Millionaire” for a special series of shows honoring “zero dollar winners.” Before the taping, I had to witness my infamous moment over and over again — my first appearance was looped for editing on the big screen during a contestant run through. I didn’t shy away this time. Instead, I laughed and wondered out loud why “The Weakest Link” didn’t get a hold of us first. Everyone laughed.

Thomas Hurley III will bounce back, just like I did, but it will take some time. This young man got to do something that so many Americans would love to do, myself included: be a contestant on “Jeopardy!”

That’s something I would put on my resume or college application, regardless of whether I won or lost. He left the show $2,000 richer than he started, and what 12-year-old wouldn’t want to have that much money to play with or save for school?

And I know that Thomas’ family, friends and social media supporters have to be thrilled that he got a chance to compete on national television. As a father, I think it’s important for parents to keep telling a kid like Thomas that, win or lose, you’re proud of his performance and excited that he took such a big chance. Don’t play the blame game — saying that Alex Trebek was “smug” and that “spelling rules are silly” won’t solve anything. And most of all, tell him to take on the world with his head held high.

Thomas Hurley III may have finished second on that show, but he is a winner just by stepping up to the “Jeopardy!” podium and playing the game. It takes a lot of courage to do what he did, and for that I salute him.

Have you ever made a big mistake in front of a huge audience? Share how you made it through the fallout in the comments section below.