Ryan McGeeESPN Senior Writer
Every great sporting event — actually, every great event period — has its breakthrough, watershed moment. That instantaneous dividing line between the way they used to do stuff and the way we do it now. Like Oct. 22, 1879, when Thomas Edison brought the first incandescent light bulb to life. Or Sept. 5, 1906, when St. Louis University quarterback Bradbury Robinson threw football’s first legal forward pass.
Then there is Dec. 4, 2010, when those first two moments came together and a light bulb revelation concerning a football toss forever changed a most-American of contests.
That’s when a 20-year-old woman from Grand Rapids, Michigan, walked onto the field of the Georgia Dome and won the Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway by pumping seven out of 10 footballs into a giant replica soda can … and did so by launching those oblong spheres two-handed. Her football form wasn’t Tom Brady passing for paydirt. It was more like LeBron James finding a teammate on the break.
This weekend, for the 10th consecutive year, those ginormous Dr Pepper cans will once again stand in the end zones of the Power Five conference title games. A pair of combatants will stand at the 5-yard line, hoping to fill those cans with as many footballs as humanly possible before the 30-second clock expires. The winners will receive $100,000 scholarships, the latest checks cut by Dr Pepper (the grand prizes have varied in value from year to year), out of a grand total of $10 million and counting.
Thanks to that trailblazer from 2010, those winners will perhaps achieve their glory via nonconventional throwing mechanics. The internet will absolutely complain about that fact. And he or she who dared to offend the internet by winning that way will absolutely not care.
“What did you ask? Did I change football history?” Nikki Boon says with a laugh. “Is that what happened? OK, I’ll take that. Because maybe I also helped change some people’s lives that night. I know that night changed my life forever.”
Boon is on the phone from Nashville, Tennessee, where she is living out her dreams and fulfilling the promise that she made to America on national television that night in 2010 to change the world through music. You might have heard of Kane Brown, the country superstar whose sophomore album just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard country charts. Boon is Brown’s day-to-day manager and is busy planning his upcoming tour.
But before we get to that, let’s go back to find out how we got to a halftime world of scholarships won and social media timelines set ablaze via shovel passes and shot-put throws.
The first edition of the Dr Pepper halftime throw took place during intermission of the 2008 ACC championship in Tampa, Florida, a matchup between Virginia Tech and Boston College that was also title-sponsored by the soft drink giant. Contestants had 30 seconds to throw 10 footballs into the replica can. Both New Jersey’s Geza Kenna III and Georgia’s Ronnie Botts went with conventional one-handed, over-the-shoulder throws. It wasn’t pretty. There was even a little heckling from the crowd. But Kenna defeated Botts 7-4, crying as he was mobbed by the mascots of the ACC.
The following year, Sarah Beth Hill, a medical student at South Alabama and — gulp — A GIRL(!) took her sweet time as she drained nine of 10 throws, taking up the entire 30-second clock while her too-hurried opponent was forced to stand and watch her finish.
“That was exactly how I taught her to do, not to get into a hurry and take her time,” says Brendt Bedsole, who coached Hill before she traveled to Atlanta for the SEC championship. These days Bedsole coaches and teaches at Spanish Fort (Alabama) High School. In 2009, he was the director of football operations for the brand new South Alabama program. Hill, who had never even held a football in her hands before applying for the Dr Pepper contest, took her father’s advice and reached out to Jaguars head coach Joey Jones, who immediately sent her to Bedsole and his former Auburn teammate Dameyune Craig. Craig said he was too busy as wide receivers coach, so Hill became Bedsole’s pet project.
“She was out on the practice field every single day, throwing it hundreds of times toward a target we made for her,” Bedsole remembers. “I would stand there with a stopwatch and keep repeating, ‘Slow down! Slow down! The other guy is going to go too fast, I promise.'”
He did indeed. Meanwhile, Hill dropped back on each pass, looking like an animation from a QB academy instructional video.
“This is good stuff,” says Duke head coach David Cutcliffe as he examines film of Hill’s efforts on YouTube. Coach Cut is one of the game’s most respected quarterback whisperers and the perpetual personal coach to the Manning boys, Peyton and Eli. “She takes a nice drop step, she brings her right arm up and cocked, her left arm as well to help aim the nose of the ball. Her eyes are locked on the target. She even has a little loose, bouncy legwork in those knees. I’m impressed. This is textbook passing right here. That’s why she won.”
“I’ve been coaching 30-plus years and I’ve never [been] more nervous or been prouder in my life than I was watching Sarah that night,” confesses Bedsole, who starts every semester showing the video of Hill’s victory to his high school classes. “I watch it back all the time. And now she’s a doctor because that money helped her pay for school. It makes me so dang proud.”
Well, Coach, does it give you a little extra pride in knowing that Hill was one of the last to win her $123,000 scholarship money by way of old-school, gridiron throwing mechanics?
“I’m sorry, what?”
Yeah, it’s all chest passes now.
“I was not aware of that. How in the world did that happen?”
It was fall 2010, when Boon saw the contest information on a Dr Pepper 12-pack carton and decided to send in her video submission. In that video, she admitted that she was a lifelong devotee of the beverage, but also explained her college situation. She was a sophomore at a small music college in Minnesota and that was fine, but her dream was to move to Nashville and enroll in the music programs at Belmont University or Middle Tennessee State. She’d told her father that’s what she wanted to do and he supported her, but they both knew they couldn’t afford it.
“On the video I told them I wanted to change the world through music,” she recalls now. “And I meant that. I think they knew that I did, because it was only two days later when they called and said I was going to Atlanta to throw footballs for a $100,000 scholarship.”
From the moment she told her friends and family about her shot, everyone in her family was all-in. The father of her then-boyfriend (now-husband) worked in construction, and he got the specs for the giant Dr Pepper can and built Boon a practice target. For several weeks she threw at least 100 balls a day at that target, recruiting her classmates as ball boys and ball girls. She watched the video of Sarah Beth Hill and mimicked those mechanics, but her 30-second results always hovered in the five-to-seven out of 10 range.
One night, during her evening duties as a hostess at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Minneapolis, someone tipped off one of the regular customers about Boon’s upcoming challenge. Ray Edwards, then a defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings, suggested that she throw the football like a basketball. A two-handed chest pass, he reasoned, would be more accurate and allow her to put a little oomph behind each throw. Boon thanked him for the advice and then immediately blew it off.
“I was like, I don’t think I could do that,” she admits now. “Plus, I didn’t want to look like I didn’t know what I was doing.”
But in the days leading up to her trip south, she was still stuck in a 5-to-7 makes rut. So during her last home practice session, a friend begged her to try the Edwards method.
“I said, ‘Fine! I’ll do it once!’ And the first time I tried it I went 10-for-10. It was the first time during all those weeks that I’d gone 10-for-10.” Stunned, but convinced, she immediately shut it down, went back to her apartment and emailed Dr Pepper HQ in Plano, Texas.
“I asked them, ‘OK, what are the exact rules?'” Boon remembers. “They said, ‘It just has to go from your hands to the target. That’s it.’ I was like, OK then …”
The next day, in Atlanta, she gathered with the other finalists for a throw-off to see which two would be on the big stage 24 hours later in the Georgia Dome and live on CBS. Worried someone might steal her plan of attack, Boon stuck to convention in her warm-ups with her father. But when the eliminations began, she unleashed the chest pass.
“The Dr Pepper people were like, ‘You’re really going to do this?’ They couldn’t believe it. I looked at them and said, ‘So, we’re cool with this?’ They never had no problem with it all; they just couldn’t believe I was doing it.”
In fact, the competition section of the contest rules is the same now as it was then and only 150 words long. It says to show up on time for all events, bring no equipment, don’t wear cleats, don’t wear gloves and no third-party can assist with the throws. It also states:
Passes must pass from contestant’s hands, fully through the Target in the Can Replica, without touching the ground or any object or surface other than the Can Replica, all as solely determined by Sponsor or its judge, in order to be considered a “Successful Pass.”
On Saturday, as Boon stepped up to the 5-yard line and took her place beside the Dr Pepper cooler full of footballs, she thought about the challenge. She thought to herself, “If I lose, then I’ve had a great experience and I’ll win the $25,000 (runner-up scholarship money) and I’ll go back to Minnesota. If I win, then in 20 days I’ll be moving to Nashville to make my dreams come true.”
She made three in a row and five of the first six. After two misses, she paused, gathered herself and finished with two straight. Final score: Nikki Boon’s chest pass 7, Matt Fairfield’s football pass 5. Within seconds, cheerleaders with congratulations and Dr Pepper executives with a giant check for $123,000 were swarming her. While she exclaimed how the moment would change her life, the millions who had watched were exclaiming all kinds of noise about her tactics.
That started in the CBS broadcast booth, where color commentator Gary Danielson said to America, “A two-handed chest pass is going to win this tournament … who knew?” while play-by-play legend Verne Lundquist respectfully declared, “That looked like a 1955 basketball game.” Meanwhile, football fans took to Facebook and still-new Twitter to try to make sense out of what they’d just witnessed.
“The Dr Pepper people called me and said, ‘We’re going to have to change the rules because of this!'” Boon remembers. “But they didn’t change the throwing rules. They changed the game. Instead of 10 balls in 30 seconds they went with as many balls as you can throw in 30 seconds.”
The furor over football mechanics didn’t last long. The football game restarted and everyone moved on … until the next year. That’s when Katelyn Watson and Ivon Padilla-Rodriguez squared off in Atlanta and neither one of them went with a traditional one-armed throw. Watson’s full chest pass drained 10 passes, but Padilla-Rodriguez, with help from Nevada Wolfpack QB Cody Fajardo, devised a system to keep her weight and shoulders balanced out, holding one football in her left hand while throwing another with her right. They both started with five in a row before Padilla-Rodriguez won 13-10.
Ever since, the chest pass has ruled. And ever since, those who believe it’s their job to guard the gates of everything that ensures football is actually football have been appalled. Last year at the Big Ten and Pac-12 championships, University of South Dakota junior Sawyer Stevens and Fox Valley Tech’s Trent Waring were chest-pass machines. Almost immediately, they inspired a “Should the chest pass be banned in the Dr Pepper halftime contest?” discussion thread on Reddit, and both were heavily mocked across all social media platforms.
— JWC (@ThisJamesCoker) December 3, 2017
Seriously, can we outlaw the chest pass? This is football.#DrPepperChallenge
— Caleb Noe (@wvltCaleb) December 3, 2017
Neither contestant cared. At all. First, they’d been warned by the folks at Dr Pepper that their approaches would come with a hefty serving of digital snark. In 2016, George Fox University student Kyle Degman had been ripped for his basketball-ish tosses at the Pac-12 title game, though they were more free throw than chest pass. (Side note: Take one look at the kid’s contest entry video and you’ll see he can wing a football just fine.)
Every finals winner — and every runner-up — all sing the same chorus when it comes to questions about their technique.
“I was trying to win $100,000 to secure my future and to relieve the stress on my family trying to make my dreams come true,” Stevens said one year ago. “Besides, I’ve had plenty of perspective in my life.”
When he was 10 years old, Stevens was riding aboard a school bus that collided with another vehicle and was sent careening onto its side. He suffered severe leg injuries and spent the remainder of his childhood dealing with searing nerve damage in his left leg. His brother was killed. Stevens fought back to play football and become valedictorian at his high school. Dr Pepper selected him as a scholarship finalist because of his story and pledge to one day help injured children as a doctor.
“So, yeah, someone thinking I threw a football the wrong way with a scholarship on the line?” Stevens said. “That doesn’t really bother me.”
The same can be said for the contestant who seems to have dealt with the greatest amount of internet trolling. In 2013, high school senior Brooks Bergman won the big scholarship in a thrilling tiebreaker at the SEC championship. His throwing style wasn’t a free throw, chest pass, standard football toss, or even Padilla-Rodriguez’s two-ball action. It was a mashup of all of the above, a sort of fast-paced shot-putting throw.
The internet was merciless. A petition was filed at Change.org demanding, “Ban the Chest-Pass in the College Football Dr. Pepper Halftime Challenge!” with Bergman’s photo as the centerpiece. A Deadspin story carried the headline “This Dude Just Won $100,000 Throwing A Football Like An A–h—.”
Even one of the most notoriously nice dudes of football got in on the fun. Former Alabama lineman Barrett Jones was on the road in Arizona with the St. Louis Rams, and when he saw his Twitter timeline filled with LOLs aimed at Bergman he stepped out of his normally measured social media character and suggested that while the kid had won big, he’d paid for it by losing “man points.”
“I posted that and then I was away from my phone for a while,” remembers Jones, now an analyst with SEC Network and ESPN Radio. “When I came back and checked my mentions, people from back home in Alabama were just killing me. And they were all from his hometown, Florence. That’s also my parents’ hometown. Let’s just say Brooks has a lot of people who love him back home and on this day they weren’t loving me.”
While Bergman celebrated in Atlanta, Jones sat in his hotel room posting apologies, including one directly to Bergman. Now the two have become friends, and Jones learned what so many did in the days after they’d made fun of the teenager’s winning strategy. He’s a cancer survivor, defeating leukemia as a child, declared cancer free at 11. In his Dr Pepper entry video, he pledged to use his education to help other kids suffering as he did.
“Brooks is one the most genuine people you will ever meet in your life,” Jones says. “He’s so genuine he didn’t even get mad at me when I made fun of him. Instead, he reached out and wanted to be my friend. We could all learn from that. We made a real connection.”
Perhaps that’s been the most unforeseen aspect of this 10-year halftime experience, even more than the rise of the chest pass. The depth and breadth of the connections made.
Ryan Stevens, Dr Pepper’s senior director of brand marketing, feels a connection with every contestant, many of whom he was crucial in selecting. On Saturday night he’ll be in Charlotte, North Carolina, to hand the big white check to the scholarship winner at the ACC championship. “I am not an outwardly emotional guy,” he confesses. “But that is an extremely emotional moment for me. … It’s become my favorite day of the year.” He also adds that he could care less how they throw the football.
Bryce McWhirter feels a connection with Padilla-Rodriguez, though he has never met her. After scouring YouTube for clips of past winners and their passing techniques, the soon-to-be Baylor student found himself drawn to her one-of-a-kind two-handed style. He’ll also be in Charlotte, competing in the challenge this weekend. And he’s not worried about digital darts aimed at his mechanics. “Social media is kind of my thing,” explains the computer science major, who dreams of creating a next-level connection app for college students.
Joining Stevens and McWhirter in Charlotte will be University of Mount Union (Ohio) education student Essence Blue. Her connection to past Dr Pepper champions is much more personal. When she realized that 2013 Big Ten championship halftime winner Molly (Brown) Reed worked as a nurse at Akron Children’s Hospital, she reached out for help. Reed wowed viewers when she used her long reach and shooting skills learned as a high school basketball player to drill a record 18 passes. This week, Reed — or as she’s still known on YouTube, “Girl wins $100,000 throwing football with two hands” — has been making the one-hour commute from Akron to Alliance to help Blue run drills. They’ve decided to go with more of a free throw approach rather than Reed’s chest pass.
“My dad is the most excited, I think,” says Reed. “I told him about Essence and he immediately dug up the practice rig that he built for me in 2013. He said, ‘Yes! We’ve got somebody new to coach up!'”
But the deepest feeling of Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway connection belongs to the chest pass O.G. This weekend, Boon will be watching and rooting for every contest finalist. And her advice is the same for anyone lucky enough to stand where she once did, gripping a football at the 5-yard line and staring down an oversized soda can.
“For 30 seconds, don’t care what anyone thinks,” she says. “Don’t care how crazy you might look to them. Don’t care if some guy somewhere says you’re doing it wrong. However you want to do it is the right way to do it. You have 30 seconds to literally change your life forever. Thirty seconds. Who cares how you look?”