Catawba student wins big prize as ‘Millionaire’ contestant

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 12, 2013

SALISBURY — Catawba College senior Matthew Sparks may not be a millionaire, but he is about to be $59,000 richer after making an appearance on a hit game show.

This Tuesday and Wednesday, Sparks, 21, was featured as a contestant on the TV show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” on CBS. The two episodes were filmed in late August, but Sparks had to keep quiet about the results until now.

He wound up walking away from the $100,000 trivia question, choosing not to take a guess that could have cut his winnings in half.

“I just want to thank everyone for their support,” Sparks said. “Without it, literally, I would not have done it at all. … I’m so glad I got to do this. It was a lot of fun.”

Friends joined him to watch the episodes together — first at Mykonos Grill in Salisbury, where he works, and then in a common area at Salisbury Village at Castlewood apartments. They cheered when he answered a question correctly.

“I’m so excited for him,” said Patrick Gassaway, a senior at Catawba. “I told him, ‘Matt, that’s perfect for you. You’re an academic, you’re brilliant, you’re going to be famous.’”

Erin House, a Catawba graduate, said Sparks represented the Salisbury community well.

“He’s got such a big personality, too, and that came out really well on screen,” House said.

Sparks said he plans to keep his job at Mykonos until he graduates. With the prize money, he said he will probably pay off his students loans, buy some special gifts for people and possibly get a puppy.

But before he receives his winnings, he still has time to consider what he’s been dreaming of doing — buying some real estate and traveling to Greece.

Contestants on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” earn money by answering a series of questions that have been assigned different dollar values.

In the first round, the values of ten questions are assigned randomly, and players can earn up to $68,600. A wrong answer sends contestants home with $1,000, and walking away without answering allows them to keep half of the money they’ve earned.

In the second round, contestants answer four final questions with set prize values. Contestants first play to win $100,000, then $250,000, then $500,000 and finally $1 million. They can walk away with their full winnings, and an incorrect answer will still leave them with $25,000.

The game’s new host this year is comedian and actor Cedric “The Entertainer.”

“In between takes, he’s very down to earth, fun, easy to talk to and easy to relate to,” Sparks said. “On screen, he’s a ball of wit, and he’s so funny. He’s hilarious.”

At the beginning of Wednesday’s episode, Sparks — who loves astrology — informed Cedric that he is a Scorpio and Cedric is a Taurus.

“You and I, Mr. ‘The Entertainer,’ are very compatible. We have more in common than you think,” Sparks said.

Cedric raised his eyebrows at the audience, who laughed.

“I’m a bull. You’re a scorpion,” Cedric replied. “I would stomp you.”

Sparks had made his debut the night before in Tuesday’s episode. The very first question left him drawing a blank — “Hated around the office, what term describes a superior who flies in, makes a lot of noise, dumps on everyone, and then leaves?”

Fortunately, he could use a lifeline and “Ask the Audience,” who picked “seagull manager” as the correct answer over “raccoon boss,” “kangaroo supervisor” and “elk executive.”

“It was an easy question, but it was more about me being overwhelmed and nervous,” Sparks said.

The nerves cleared after that, and by the end of Tuesday’s episode, Sparks was just one correct answer away from the second round.

In the next episode, Sparks made it through to the $100,000 question — “The Slumber Party Barbie doll from 1965 came with a scale fixed at 110 lbs. and a ‘How to Lose Weight’ diet guide that said what?”

The possible answers were “Count calories!”, “Fruits & veggies!”, “One meal a day!”, and “Don’t eat!”

Sparks said that he wanted to answer, “Don’t eat!”, but he wasn’t sure and he had used all three of his lifelines. He decided to walk away with $59,000.

He would have been right.

“It was just such an outrageous answer, and I almost wanted to go and risk everything,” Sparks said. “But I chose to play it safe.”

In the end, he said he has no regrets, and he’s very happy with how things turned out.

“It’s perfect for me,” Sparks said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Sparks is studying history, religion and philosophy at Catawba.

“Millionaire” asks questions about a wide range of topics, so he got ready for the show by studying trivia questions every chance he got. He got his father to quiz him on sports knowledge, which was his weak spot — and one that never came up in the game.

He said he used to participate in academic teams in school, which generally did well in quiz competitions. He’s also a fan game shows like “Millionaire” and likes to play along.

His family and friends encouraged him to try out for the show last winter, and he got his chance when the auditions came to Charlotte in July. There, Sparks passed a trivia test, an on-camera interview and a screen test.

After he was chosen as a contestant, Sparks traveled to New York with his parents, Larry and Melissa Sparks of Hyden, Ky., and his boyfriend, 22-year-old Jared Robinson.

“I’m happy for him, and I’m glad he got to have fun,” Robinson said. “For me, it was a very good experience. I loved every minute of it.”

Once Sparks got to the studio, he was taken to a room with several other contestants, who got to know each other and practiced trivia questions while they waited.

“Once one of us got taken to go be on the show, that was it. We never saw them again,” Sparks said. “Being on a game show is the closest you’ll get to being trapped in a parallel dimension. Time does not exist, because you don’t know what time it is. … It’s an experience.”

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.