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06.06.2022

Ryan Long on His Journey From Rideshare Driver to 16-Game Jeopardy! Champion

When I first got the call for Jeopardy! I was a different man.

I initially applied for the online test in September of 2020. I had worked all spring and summer through the pandemic, but in the fall, I was off from work on medical leave, so I had time on my hands. I had signed up for the test a few times over the years, but there was always some hitch that prevented me from following through. Ultimately, I think it didn’t happen then because I didn’t truly believe that it could happen. It was a pipe dream, the kind of thing that you halfheartedly pursue in your spare time because 1) you don’t really think there’s a chance and 2) you’ve been conditioned to think of life as a series of crushed ambitions, so why bother? (That’s long denied depression for ya. Anyway.)

A month later in October, I was contacted for a Zoom audition. I was not the most confident person in the world, but I did it, thinking the whole time, “There’s no way they’re ever gonna let my mug on TV.” Still, I was happy I’d actually tried. At least I could say that. Life went back to normal, I got better, and in early January, I went back to work.

Then COVID came knocking.

I had managed to avoid getting sick the entire previous year, but after a few days back at work, my luck finally ran out. It went bad pretty quickly. I ended up in the hospital for two and a half weeks. Now, like a lot of men, particularly African American men, I don’t like hospitals. I don’t like going to the doctor (although I’m getting better with that). This time though, I didn’t have a choice.

I’ve been a dishwasher, a water ice truck driver, a piano delivery guy, an airport security worker, a supermarket cashier, a bouncer, a street sweeper, a warehouse grunt, a package handler, an office clerk, a CCT operator, a rideshare driver. And now, I’m a 16-game Jeopardy! champion.

The hospital staff brought it home to me pretty quickly that they weren’t sure I’d make it. I still keep the picture my doctor gave me of my saturated lungs on my phone, as a reminder of how close I came to never seeing my son again. Thankfully, I did recover. The experience taught me not to take anything for granted, and it relit a fire in me that I thought had gone out a long time ago: the fire to do something with my life. I remembered that life wasn’t just about survival; I wanted to actually live and not just “get through.”

A lot of things happened over the next year which, for the sake of brevity, I’ll spare everybody. Epiphanies fade; life largely went back to the regular routine again, except I couldn’t physically do my job anymore. I tried, and I failed. I started rideshare driving because it was pretty much my only option for making ends meet (which they didn’t, always). I made it work as best I could, like everybody does. Being on Jeopardy! was the furthest thing from my mind. And then this past February, I got a phone call...

With the help of friends and family, I was able to realize this crazy dream. That fire came back to me yet again; I wanted to do this. For myself, my kid, and for a thousand other reasons, I wanted to do this. I swore I wouldn’t waste the opportunity, so I went out and tried my best. I think I did okay, although I only look back now and see my mistakes. And now, after being on the show, I find it has awakened something else in me. I’ve started to find joy in the possibilities of life again instead of fearing the potential outcomes. I’m still proud of those years when I was grinding and doing whatever it took to survive. But I’ve also been reminded that I still have dreams and ambitions, and that it’s okay to care about myself enough to have them. With the help of a lot of people, I managed to achieve a big one. For that, I am forever grateful.

People keep asking me what my plans might be. I don’t know what the future has in store for me, but I do know this: I plan on following the advice of the illustrious Ms. Jill Scott and “living my life like it’s golden.” I’ve worn a lot of hats in my years on this planet. I started out at 14 with a summer job as a furniture mover. I’ve been a dishwasher, a water ice truck driver, a piano delivery guy, an airport security worker, a supermarket cashier, a bouncer, a street sweeper, a warehouse grunt, a package handler, an office clerk, a CCT operator, a rideshare driver. And now, I’m a 16-game Jeopardy! champion. How’s that for an entry on the ol’ resumé?