Football contest nets UF pharmacy student $20,000 scholarship and appearance on national TV

As the final seconds tick away before halftime of the Pac-12 Conference football championship game, University of Florida College of Pharmacy student Jeremiah Johnson’s heart is racing. From his position in the end zone tunnel at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, he hears the roar of 60,000 rabid college football fans and sees rows of bright stadium lights shining down on the field. He is about to compete in the Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway before a national television audience of nine million people — and hopefully ride the accuracy of his right arm to win a $100,000 scholarship.

The Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway

Jeremiah Johnson competes in the Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway football contest at the Pac-12 Conference championship game in Las Vegas.

An avid Florida Gators and college football fan, Johnson has watched college students compete in the Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway for years and mused about one day participating himself. In its 15th year, the contest features student finalists taking the field at halftime during the ACC, Big 12, SEC, Big 10 and Pac-12 conference championship games, competing to see who can throw the most number of footballs into an oversized Dr. Pepper can in 30 seconds. The winner of each halftime contest receives a $100,000 scholarship, with the runner-up earning a $20,000 scholarship.

The student finalists are selected based on a 60-second video submission, where they explain why they deserve the tuition scholarship, how it would impact their lives and how it would help them achieve their personal and professional goals. Johnson recorded his video in October, highlighting how the scholarship would help ease the burden of student debt and enable him to pursue his dream of becoming a community pharmacist, helping patients in underserved communities.

In his video, Johnson spoke about finding inspiration from past pharmacists. He specifically referenced Charles Alderton, a pharmacist and creator of Dr. Pepper. Alderton formulated the carbonated soda in a Waco, Texas drug store back in 1885.

Johnson believes that linking Dr. Pepper to pharmacy made his video stand out among all the entries. A man of strong faith, he prayed often about the contest in the hope that his selection would allow him to glorify his savior, Jesus Christ. A week after submitting the video, he received a phone call from Dr. Pepper.

“For a minute, I did not believe the phone call was real,” Johnson said. “A marketing representative from Dr. Pepper explained how they were impressed by my video and extended an invitation to the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas.

Johnson had about five weeks to train for the contest. His stepdad and grandfather built a wooden structure in the backyard of his Plant City home that mirrored the dimensions of the large Dr. Pepper can. As a fourth-year pharmacy student, he would spend his days at a community pharmacy rotation site in Tampa and his evenings throwing the football in the backyard.

“I watched videos of previous contestants and tried to figure out the best method to grab the footballs and throw them,” Johnson said. “There are so many techniques to consider, but I felt most comfortable throwing the football overhand in a traditional motion.”

Touchdown in Las Vegas

Johnson and his girlfriend arrived in Las Vegas on Nov. 29, two days before the Pac-12 Conference championship game. Dr. Pepper covered all their travel expenses and, in his words, provided a VIP experience throughout the stay.

There were three student scholarship winners invited to Las Vegas, but only two got to compete for the $100,000 grand prize at halftime. A preliminary round of throws was held at Allegiant Stadium the day before the game, with Johnson competing against college students from Stony Brook University in New York and Santa Barbara City College in California.

Johnson found his rhythm early in the preliminary round, tossing 14 footballs through the round hole in 30 seconds. He earned the highest score and punched his ticket to the competition’s final round. The victory also guaranteed that Johnson would leave Las Vegas with at least $20,000 in scholarship money.

“I refrained from telling many people about the trip to Las Vegas and my participation in the Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway, in case I finished last in the preliminary round and did not appear on national TV,” Johnson said. “Once my spot in the final was secured, I let a few of my classmates and friends know what was happening.”

30 seconds for a $100,000 scholarship

As the football teams from the University of Oregon and University of Washington walked off the field for halftime, Johnson and his competitor were ushered out of the end zone tunnel. Two oversized Dr. Pepper cans were positioned on the goal line with tubs of regulation-size footballs five yards away. Each competitor took their position near the tubs and received last-minute instructions from the official. Whoever threw the most footballs through the two-foot diameter hole in 30 seconds would take home the $100,000 scholarship.

Jeremiah Johnson Dr. Pepper contest

The nerves Johnson experienced in the tunnel followed him to the football field. Despite long, deep breaths, he was unable to relax. It was hard to ignore the spotlight and the gravity of the moment.

“The whole situation of knowing that you could win $100,000 and so many people are watching and counting on you was a lot of pressure,” Johnson said.

An official wearing white and black stripes led the final countdown, and on his whistle, the competition began. Johnson, sporting a red Dr. Pepper football jersey with the number 23 on the back, made his first throw. But he struggled with his grip on the subsequent throws and missed three in a row.

“My technique, the overhand throw, requires you to have a good grip on the football,” Johnson said. “When I did not have a good grip, I started panicking and my technique changed.”

Johnson had no idea how many throws his competitor made, but with each miss, his dream of winning the $100,000 scholarship became more difficult. He would only connect on 7 of 16 tosses and ultimately lose by a score of 13-7.

The sting of disappointment does not last long, as Dr. Pepper presented Johnson with a $20,000 scholarship check for finishing runner-up.

“This scholarship will go a long way toward paying down my student debt,” Johnson said. “By alleviating some of the financial pressure that accompanies my student loans, I can better focus on being a community pharmacist and serving others.”

Johnson will graduate from UF with his Doctor of Pharmacy degree in May — appreciative of the scholarship and the opportunity of a lifetime to compete in the Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway during his final year of college.

Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway

Watch video of Jeremiah's performance

The competition took place Dec. 1 at the Pac-12 Conference football championship game in Las Vegas.

Jeremiah Johnson competes in the Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway football contest at the Pac-12 Conference championship game in Las Vegas.