Alum wins big on 'Wheel of Fortune'

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Growing up in Louisa County, Verniece Love watched "Wheel of Fortune" every evening at 7 p.m. with her grandmother, Deloris Johnson, who raised her. Each weeknight, Johnson would set aside the time to watch the show, and Love would plop next to her on the sofa and watch with her. Love tried to solve the puzzles ahead of the contestants, shouting out letters and guessing words, and soon she was envisioning herself up there on the screen, stationed behind the wheel, engaging in repartee with Pat Sajak while Vanna White attended to letter after letter that Love divined correctly.

On Monday night, Love’s childhood dream came true when she and millions of others watched her dominate an episode of the show that had long captivated her. Love, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009 and is currently enrolled in a graduate course in the School of Business, collected cash and prizes with an overall value of more than $70,000 during a commanding performance that saw her win six of the episode’s seven puzzles.

The show was recorded on July 11, but Love found that she had not adjusted to the reality of her experience this week when the episode aired.

“I’m still in shock,” Love said. “I couldn’t believe I was watching myself. It was all surreal.”

Love had maintained her love of the show after she graduated from Louisa County High School and moved to Richmond to attend VCU, though her viewing habits changed from religious to semi-regular. At VCU, she shined both as a student, majoring in marketing and minoring in African American studies and economics, and as an athlete, setting school records in in the long jump in indoor and outdoor track.

Those school records ultimately positioned VCU in the limelight alongside Love. On a pre-show questionnaire, Love had noted the records as a distinctive element in her biography. She and Sajak discussed her track career when the cameras rolled.

Love said her phone has been ringing incessantly since the show aired, and her Facebook page has been “taken over” with people reaching out to her to congratulate her, including many from Louisa and VCU.

“It’s been incredible,” said Love, who lives in Richmond with her husband and two children and works at the Virginia Department of Small Business and Supplier Diversity. “I’ve been hearing from people I hadn’t talked to in years. Teachers, track coaches, people I grew up with, they’re all letting me know how awesome it is.”

Love said she had held onto her younger self’s determination to appear on the show and finally filled out an online application to be a contestant late last year. Months passed and she forgot all about it. Then, in February, she received an emailed invitation to a tryout session in Springfield, Virginia. She doubted its authenticity and found a phone number to call and confirm that it was real.

The daylong tryout proved grueling. Various prospective contestants competed against each other as they would on the program, while representatives of the show watched and weighed not only the candidates’ aptitude but their enthusiasm and presentation. The most difficult part of the day, Love said, was a timed fill-in-the-blank written test that consisted of a series of word puzzles. When the day wrapped up, show reps told Love to expect notice of whether she had been selected within two weeks. If she hadn’t heard by then, she shouldn’t expect good news.

Two weeks passed, and she rued the missed opportunity.

Three days later, she got the email telling her she had been chosen.

Love went into training. She practiced word games and puzzles and watched and recorded each episode of Wheel of Fortune. As she had when she was a kid, she tried to solve the puzzles in real time, while thinking through tactics that she could employ when it was her turn.

In July, she traveled to California with her husband, Darryl, a fellow VCU alum whom she’d met when both were freshmen at VCU. Her episode was one of six recorded that day, and she sat in the audience for the other five. She was gripped with nerves during the two episodes that preceded hers, stunned that she was about to appear on the show she’d followed for so long. She admits now with a laugh that she was terrified of messing up in some memorable fashion and becoming one of the contestants whose miscue makes it onto one of the blooper reels on YouTube.

“I told myself I can’t be one of those people,” she said.

Those worries proved misplaced. When the games began in earnest, she found that she was focused on completing the job at hand, despite a still-considerable sense of anxiety. She lost the opening puzzle but then swept the remaining ones in convincing fashion. She attributes some of her success to good luck – her rivals encountered “Bankrupt” or “Lose a Turn” at least once each on their spins of the wheel while she never did – but also to her readiness and determination to thrive in the moment she’d dreamed about.

“The more I got used to being up there and started solving some puzzles, the more relaxed I got and just started playing,” she said.

Among the spoils from her victories was a trip to Hawaii. She and her husband have already scheduled that for next August to celebrate their anniversary. Love’s third child is due in March, and she said, “we’re definitely going to need that trip by then.” They also plan to use some of Love’s winnings toward a down payment on their first house.

Love said the most poignant of the calls she has received since her TV appearance came from her grandmother.

“She’s so excited,” Love said on Tuesday. “She called me right after the show last night and then again this morning. She told me how pretty I’d looked and how smart I am and how proud she was of me.”

In some ways, Love said, being a contestant on the show was just like sitting on the sofa with her grandmother again. She was playing along with Pat and Vanna, just trying to solve the puzzle before anyone else did.

“I said I’d be on one day, and I was,” she said. “It was such a completely cool experience, even better than I’d imagined.”


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