VALRICO — The obsession "really got serious" when 53-year-old Theresa Anderson was on maternity leave with her two sons more than 20 years ago.
Every night, without fail, she would watch Jeopardy.
She shouted answers at the television. Her husband, Burt, a microbiology professor at USF, said she kicked his butt answering the show's random questions.
Tucked into a Valrico gated community sprinkled with light-up reindeer, snowman figurines and palm trees wrapped in colored lights, trivia and Alex Trebek became a family tradition, like hanging the family's four labeled red stockings, according to her sons Miles and Drew.
"That was our little evening routine once homework was done," she said. "I've really been a Jeopardy nerd my whole life."
So Anderson took the first step to getting onto the show — taking an online test.
The third time — in January — was the charm.
She made it through another round and finally competed on the hit game show in an episode that aired Dec. 17.
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The ascent to the Jeopardy stage began in March, when Anderson received an email inviting her to the show's auditions in Boston in early May. She bought two tickets and booked a hotel.
The audition consisted of a mock game, interview and another test. Her competition numbered about 30. Producers told Anderson she did well and would be in the show's "pool" for a year.
In July, a producer called Anderson, saying she'd been selected for a Sept. 5 taping. Anderson couldn't negotiate the date assigned her.
The producer said she loved Anderson's Southern accent.
The Andersons bought three tickets to Los Angeles – for Theresa, Burt and their older son, Miles, 23. Drew, 20, couldn't make the trip because he's a student at Florida State University.
Anderson had two rules going into Jeopardy: "No. 1: Don't embarrass myself. And No. 2: Don't be in the red."
Like a college student prepping for finals, she delved into her dad's books about art history, presidents and Shakespeare. She also used an online trivia site called Sporcle.com. She did her own hair and picked out her clothes, including items from Chico's, a Westfield Brandon women's clothing store where she has worked for six years.
Her coworkers there call her "smarty pants," according to her boss, Stephanie Voth, 41. So Voth said it made a lot of sense Anderson would be on Jeopardy.
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The first time Anderson saw Trebek in real life was after the announcer said his name and he stepped onto the set. He mispronounced her name as "Ter-eh-sah."
She said she wasn't nervous, but she remembers purposely bending her knees so she didn't lock them and "fall over."
Her competitors were Susan Jann, an operations coordinator from Bristol, Pa., and a British computer chip designer named Alistair Bell, who was the reigning Jeopardy champ.
At a watch party of about 50 friends, neighbors and coworkers, boos erupted when the other two were introduced.
Anderson got the episode's first question right:
"This candy cane cocktail gets its signature flavor from this kind of Schnapps."
"What is peppermint?"
"It all goes downhill from there," Anderson joked as guests watched one of the four TV sets in her home.
Categories included Christmas, Math, Cars, New Jersey, "Mrs. Hippie" and people named George.
Her husband, Burt, 55, said the categories showed Jeopardy success is really related to luck, since math and cars are "probably not Theresa's strong suit."
Theresa stood with arms casually crossed through 30-minute program, shaking her head when her British competitor, Bell, answered.
She answered eight questions correctly and earned $6,000, placing third. She won $1,000 as a result, a sum she said she still hasn't received.
Anderson said she always wondered what the contestants and Trebek chat about behind the show's theme music while its credits roll.
"Was it good for you?" he asked the contestants after her taping Sept. 5.
A little taken aback, she said yes and asked him the same. He said it was good, too.
"Well then let's all light a cigarette," she joked.
• • •
After that scene unfolded silently on TV screens Monday night, the guests cheered for Anderson, and she curtsied.
She said after the show aired, she felt "a little relief."
"Obviously I wish I'd gotten more right, but at least I didn't embarrass myself," she said. "Even though we knew the outcome, I kind of forgot how we got there so it was nice to see it."
Anderson said she associates her loss a little with buzzer issues. She said she probably buzzed in a few seconds before the response registers, which disabled her from answering.
"I wish I'd done better on the buzzer," she said. "I don't really have any regrets, though."
No matter the outcome, though, Miles said his family was happy for his mom because she had been "trying for years" to be on the show.
"As long as I remember, she's been such a passionate fan that she's hammered it into us," he said.
She was already on stage when he and Burt sat in the audience. Miles said he was shaking during the taping.
"I was so nervous. Most people don't realize it's just one shot," he said. "I kept thinking, 'Come on, Mom, I know you know this.' They're all smart once you get to the show, so it's all about reaction time."
Drew, who couldn't make the trip to L.A., gave her a teardrop-shaped charm that read "dream," before the show aired.
Then Miles addressed the guests.
"Watching my mom on that stage basically reaching her goal and achieving that dream was something I'll never forget and I'm so proud of you."
Kelly Price can be reached at [email protected]