Once again, Aaron Rodgers will be filling the shoes of a veritable legend. The man who succeeded Brett Favre as quarterback of the Packers is the latest celebrity to take a turn guest-hosting Jeopardy! after the death of longtime host Alex Trebek. Rodgers, whose 10-episode run behind the podium begins on Monday, is an avid fan of the show and a Celebrity Jeopardy! champion. In 2015, he defeated Shark Tank investor Kevin O’Leary and astronaut (and future Arizona Senator) Mark Kelly to win $50,000 for his chosen charity, Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer.
We spoke with Rodgers about his love of Jeopardy!, his admiration for Trebek and how the thrill of hosting one of his favorite shows was like playing at Lambeau. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Sports Illustrated: What do you enjoy most about Jeopardy! as a show?
Aaron Rodgers: Well, that’s a tough question. I think, first and foremost, there’s a nostalgic affinity for me, based on what a part of my life it’s been over the years. I used to watch it as a kid at my grandparents’ house during the summers, as a kid still in Green Bay—as a young player. I just started a routine. Every weeknight at 6 o’clock, was Jeopardy time, and it still is. It’s still aired on Fox 11 in Green Bay. Jeopardy! first and then Wheel of Fortune at 6:30. That’s kind of my game show hour for the day. It’s just been a part of what I’ve done. I’ve taped it or watched for the better part of 16 years as a resident of Green Bay.
I love the show, and as anyone who loves the show, you feel like Alex was a part of your life. You’re like a friend, almost, because you’ve spent so much time with him throughout the years, so the opportunity to go back on the show, this time as a host, was just something that was really special to me and something that I really wanted to be a part of.
SI: And so was that the main appeal of hosting? This personal connection you’ve built with the show and with Alex and his legacy?
AR: I think so. I really do. I think it was to get an opportunity and just wanting to do right by his memory and be as prepared as I possibly could and just carry myself with the same type of integrity and respect that Alex did for 36 years. It was a really special opportunity for me.
SI: How are you with sports trivia?
AR: Good. I wanted to be on Sports Jeopardy!, they were running it for a while. But I love sports trivia. I’ve been a fan of Trivial Pursuit, one of my favorite board games. I love, whether it’s the old game or some newer cards, I definitely pick the sports category as much as possible.
SI: Is there something appealing to you about a niche version of Jeopardy!—like Sports Jeopardy!—or are you primarily attracted to the breadth of subjects typically covered?
I love the variety. I love learning in general. That’s why I enjoy reading books so much. I enjoyed school. Math and history were my two favorite subjects, but I love learning. So, to me, it’s as much an acquisition of knowledge as it is the competition. Obviously, when I was on the show as a contestant, it was all about the competition—I just wanted to win. I wanted to beat Mark [Kelly] and Kevin [O’Leary] really badly.
Watching at home, it’s just fun to try and understand the questions. The beauty in the way the questions are phrased in Jeopardy is that there is a rhythm to them. There’s a way they write so many of them that you can tell by the inflection points, basically little intricacies in the style of questions that allow you to understand maybe how to get to an answer even if you don’t necessarily know or understand the question immediately, there’s obviously some clues in the wording of the question that helps you kind of arrive at the answer. I love that there’s a lot of deductive reasoning, almost, and it just happens in such a quick amount of time.
For me, it was always fun to challenge myself to try to be able to really deductive-reason things very quickly on questions you didn’t know and stab at an answer in various subjects. And you just learn stuff. Every time there’s a literature category or an opera category or a theater category, it’s like, well, I don’t know any of these, so let me see if I can lock some of these away for a conversation down the line when I can sound smart because I learned a little bit of trivia on Jeopardy!.
SI: When you’re watching, are you hoping for a sports category to pop up or are you more interested in learning something new, like you said?
AR: Well, both. I mean, I love it when there’s a sports category that shows up. I think one of my favorite viral moments from the show happened in the past few years. There was a sports category and Alex just handled it so incredibly well. It was the last category—all the contestants stayed away from it until they had no choice. It got to the last five questions and none of them buzzed in on any of the questions. By the last part, it was almost like a [Saturday Night Live] “Celebrity Jeopardy” moment with Alex where he was like, “Let’s check the last question, just for fun.” I loved that, I loved the way he handled that.
There have been funny things over the years. I remember one sports category where it was a picture clue and they showed a picture of Eli Manning. The clue was something about “this quarterback just won the Super Bowl” and somebody buzzed in and said Aaron Rodgers. A lot of the contestants, they’re super brainiacs but not exactly the most sports trivia-oriented most of the time. I think that’s why they stay away from those categories for the most part.
SI: As a big fan of the show, was there anything that you learned by hosting that you found interesting or surprising?
AR: I just think it’s the enormity of the focus needed to control the game in a way where it flows so well. I think that’s the beauty in hosting and I really enjoyed that challenge because you have to be so hyper-focused in the moment and also have the ability to step back and see what you’re doing in order to not get so singularly focused that you can’t have normal interactions with the contestants and insert some of your own humor or comments. That was probably the most fun of a challenge. I really did enjoy every moment.
From the first time I stepped on set, there was just this special, once-in-a-lifetime feeling for me. On the Jeopardy! stage, with the big board, seeing the lights come on, getting dressed, putting on my suit. All the butterflies that you would get getting ready for a game happened to me. Much like we’ve had for so many years, running out of the tunnel and hearing my name, walking from behind the board to front-of-stage as the guest host those 10 times are just moments I’ll never forget. Just feeling the butterflies and excitement take over were really, really special moments.
SI: As a player, you’re known for succeeding when you have to improvise. How much free rein are you given as a host to improvise?
AR: I think there’s definitely room for some of that. The thing I wanted to do as a guest host was honor Alex’s legacy by not trying to change the things that I felt like he did that made the game so special and so relatable. And I think he had a style about him that the viewers really enjoyed and that’s why tens of millions of people watched the show. It’s because they enjoyed his cadence and his comments. And I tried to honor his memory by doing a lot of things that he did that I think people really enjoy, and also I got to use some of my own dry sense of humor at various times.
I think the biggest opportunities for some of the ad-libbing is after the first break when we’re throwing it to the interviews with the contestants. I was told that my style was much like Alex’s, where they hand you a card and it has the name of the person and where they’re from and what they do, and five or so fun facts. It’s usually just a sentence, and they will highlight which one they have prepped the contestant on. Well, I would go through these before each game and if I didn’t believe that it was maybe interesting enough or funny enough, or if there was something else on there that seemed to pique my interest more, like something I hadn’t heard of before—you know, one of the contestants was a second-generation magician. I was like, “What does that even mean?” And he was also a hand model. My only reference to hand modeling was from the movie Zoolander with Ben Stiller, so I had to ask him about that. There was another fun fact that had been highlighted that maybe he wanted to talk about but for me, I thought that would be interesting to hear. Like, how many times do you hear about a second-generation magician and hand model? I thought it was such a funny, interesting fact.
Another person had some fact on there about something that seemed a bit nerdy. I know that you have to be kind of nerdy and brainy to be on the show. You have to answer a certain number of questions right to be in the pool to be selected. But one of the contestants was also training for a marathon, and I just thought, how cool would it be, while it seems like they were prepped on something that seemed a little nerdy, I’m going to ask them about training for a marathon, because that’s an athletic feat that I have a ton of respect for. A person who may be looked at as a nerd their entire life, let’s get them talking about their love of running. It’s something that, to me, I just have so much respect for. Who wants to run for four straight hours? That’s incredible, the dedication and the training that goes on with that. So that’s what I tried to do, and they were like, “That’s like Alex. Alex used to always love throwing some curveballs at the contestants.” So I had fun with that.
SI: Obviously it sounds like you had a blast hosting. Is it something you’d like to do again?
AR: Yes, for sure. It was a dream of mine to be on the show and a dream to come back on the show. For a long time, I just wanted to come back and compete against one of the great Celebrity Jeopardy! contestants. But hosting the show has always been a dream of mine as well. It’s like my second dream job. My first one I’m thankful I get to do right now and I’ve done for the past 16 years, but it’s definitely a dream job for me.