"I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want...I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was." -Muhammad Ali
Few gave Leonard Cooper a snowball's chance in Hell to win Jeopardy. They looked at his rather large, 60's Afro hairstyle, at his shirt and tie-less, casual attire and perhaps thought, "Who is this [black] kid and what's HE doing on Jeopardy? Even so, they relaxed their baseless opinions being confident in themselves that Leonard Cooper was just there for window dressing purposes only, and couldn't possibly reach the lofty ranks of "Jeopardy Teen Champion." Perhaps, they based their views on what they saw, prejudging him by the way he looked without giving much consideration to what it must have taken for him to get there. Too often, Blacks are perceived as not having made it on their own ingenuity, merit or hard work but rather because someone gave them a pass. No doubt, in the minds of some, Cooper's appearance on Jeopardy was likely the result of a type of game show affirmative action.
I know a little something about the cerebral fortitude it takes to be on Jeopardy. Some years ago, I joined a group of Baltimore hopefuls in a tryout for a chance to compete on the nationally syndicated show. Jeopardy has always been one of my favorite TV programs. From the comfort of my living room, I had competed in countless Jeopardy challenges through the years, and won. When the day of the tryouts finally came, I was primed and ready to compete in earnest, or so I believed.
The Jeopardy tryouts were a grueling process of elimination to determine who would ultimately get a chance to appear on the actual show. The tryouts were held in a hotel ballroom filled with a hundred other Jeopardy wannabees like me, all of us brainiacs. The rules were read, and the game began just like the TV show. All I can say is, it was brutal. The categories and the answers were more obscure and more difficult than any I'd ever faced on the TV version. I didn't have a clue as to what the correct questions were. But neither did most of my competition. After about an hour when the dust had settled, there was only one guy left standing; and he had only made it into the "second" round to face another round of competitors.
No doubt Leonard Cooper faced the same rigorous selection process to compete for a place among the finalists, and ultimately, to become a finalist on the show. Being cocky, as the media described him, wasn't what got him that far; being an intelligent, self-confident, 17 year old teenager is what did. Having great instincts also helped him. He earned his place on Jeopardy. Some people have tried to second guess Cooper's win by speculating how he could have lost based on what the other two contestants might have done differently. But let's face it, this kid had decided on his strategy in final Jeopardy and it worked. Leonard Cooper is a Jeopardy Teen Champion and he's got the $75,000 prize to prove it.
I hope we see the likes of Leonard Cooper again sometime in our future. His story reminds me of Muhammad Ali, Dr. Ben Carson and other accomplished African Americans, past and present, who went on to overcome great odds to achieve their dreams. But isn't that the story of African Americans as a people? We overcome. Leonard Cooper is a young man with great potential. Perhaps, there's a White House in his future. We'll be keeping an eye out for him.