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The $100K Halftime Show That Changed One Dragon’s Life

December 12, 2017

Isaiah Hoffman making one of the winning football throws.

Like every Dragon, Isaiah Hoffman is spending this week studying for final exams. The physics and organic chemistry twin bill he’s got lined up is enough to send a shiver down his spine. But in between the work he’s doing to close out the fall quarter, he’s still thinking about the life-changing moments he spent on a football field in North Carolina last weekend in front of a sold-out crowd and a national TV audience, winning $100,000.

Hoffman, a pre-med double major studying sociology and biology in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, scored the big win at halftime of the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 2 by tossing 12 footballs into an oversized can of Dr. Pepper in 30 seconds as part of the soda company’s tuition giveaway.

“When I try to recall it, honestly, I didn’t see or hear anything,” Hoffman said a few days later, reflecting on the experience back on campus. “I couldn’t see anything but the can. That’s probably the only time that’s ever happened to me.”

Hoffman made it into the competition by blowing past the first step in the process — getting at least 50 votes of support (he got 750) — and submitting a short video about his plans to cure Alzheimer’s disease, which has affected several of his family members. And then he was forced to wait.

After more than two months without hearing back from the organization, he assumed he wasn’t picked to compete in the halftime contest. When he got five calls in a row from a Texas number he didn’t recognize while sleeping in on a Saturday morning, he answered briskly before realizing it was Dr. Pepper’s CEO inviting him to take a shot at $100,000.

“I woke up really quickly once I realized who it was,” Hoffman said.

He spent two weeks practicing his form, buying 20 footballs and tying a hula hoop to the volleyball nets on Buckley Green — seven feet off the ground to match the opening in the can — then stepping back five yards and firing away. It might have looked a little strange, but the end result was worth it.

“People were walking by and you could just tell they were thinking, ‘He looks crazy,’” Hoffman said. “But for $100,000, I’ll look crazy.”

Hoffman even called up his high school basketball coach for advice on the great debate that has roiled the contest for years: Is it better to throw overhand or to toss a two-handed chest pass? His coach told him to stick to what he knew from the hardwood and throw the ball with both hands. It worked. Hoffman cleared the preliminary round the day before the big game, in the Carolina Panthers’ eerily empty stadium, and advanced to the final competition.

The stadium that had been nearly vacant the day before was packed with fans as Hoffman and the crew running the contest made their way toward the field at halftime. He was more worried about what he would say when interviewed by an ESPN reporter announcing the contest than the contest itself, but it didn’t slow him down. He calmly sank a dozen footballs to go home a winner.

“Up to that point, I thought things like this don’t happen to me,” Hoffman said.

The win gave Hoffman $100,000 to cover tuition costs – in the form of an oversized check, of course – and he still hasn’t quite wrapped his head around it all. When he was a freshman, he nearly had to drop out for financial reasons, he said. Now he’s thinking about going to medical school to become a surgeon.

“From those humble beginnings, this is completely crazy,” Hoffman said. “It’s the complete opposite.”

Hoffman’s girlfriend has been making fun of him since he won the scholarship, because he hasn’t had any soda besides Dr. Pepper. But it makes sense to him.

“I actually do feel loyal to them,” he said. “I feel like they changed my life.”