By the skin of her teeth, Sharon Stevens won this year’s Gridiron Jury title, edging out Jay Hardison thanks to an unlikely comeback.
With one week left, Stevens held a narrow one-game lead over Jay Hardison. The two picked one game differently in the final week: Memphis at the University of Central Florida. Stevens chose No. 8 ranked UCF, while Hardison went with a hot Memphis team, betting against the slightly favored Golden Knights, who were without their starting quarterback. Had the Tigers won, Hardison would have tied Stevens and shared the title.
It looked like Hardison’s gamble was going to pay off. Memphis jumped out to a 24-7 lead in the first quarter and carried a 38-21 lead into halftime.
“I honestly thought it was over at that point,” Hardison said. “I had been watching the game, and at that point I changed the channel and watched another game.”
And he missed one heck of a game. UCF came storming back in the second half, outscoring Memphis 35-3 on their way to a 56-41 win. Sharon Stevens spent the day out with family. She had been checking the score on her phone in the first half, frustrated. But when she got home, she received a text from her sister informing her of UCF’s comeback.
On Sunday morning, she got to basque in the glory of her victory.
“All year long, people at church have been asking me, ‘How are you doing? How are you doing?’,” Stevens said. “And Sunday I told them, ‘I won!’”
Stevens — who was the last winner of the Gridiron Jury years ago — has been the frontrunner all year long, but a bad skid on Thanksgiving week, coupled with a seemingly out-of-nowhere four-game losing streak for the Carolina Panthers, put Hardison back in the race.
Jurors had a short week to make Thanksgiving week picks because that Friday’s issue of The Daily Record had to be finished by Wednesday afternoon. Stevens also had to coordinate plans to meet with family for the weekend, leaving her without time to conduct her research. She normally likes to spend 45 minutes a day for two or three days studying the weekly matchups before making her picks.
“I don’t want to give away my sources,” Stevens said. “But I would see what the sportscasters were saying. I’d look on ESPN a lot.”
Stevens’ husband, Doug, was also a member of the Jury. He finished third, three games behind Sharon and one behind Hardison. Sharon said he’d ask her from time to time what games she had picked, but she wouldn’t tell him until Thursday night to make sure that he wouldn’t copy her.
“This is something we did independently,” Sharon Stevens said. “I wanted to win this on my own.”
“It was all good fun,” Doug said of the friendly competiton with his wife. “I was tickled to death that she won.”
People weren’t shy to let her know when she was wrong about their favorite team.
“Some of the games were tough, especially at the end, and when I didn’t pick somebody’s favorite, they were real quick to tell me. But I just tell them it’s really hard to pick sometimes.”
Still, more often than not, she seemed to get it right. Stevens finished with a record of 112-33 (77.2 percent). She dazzled readers across the area with her success. While attending a Veterans Day event at Tyler Park, an older gentleman approached her and told her, “I want to take you to Las Vegas.” The proposal naturally shocked her at first, but once the man explained it was because of her prowess at picking games, she laughed and appreciated the compliment.
Hardison also had nothing but praise for his competitor.
“Hats off to her, she did a great job,” Hardison said. “She picked some off-the-wall games, but that’s part of the game. Hopefully we can do this again next year. I’m a competitive guy and I had a lot of fun.”
Stevens is a fierce competitor, too. Her father made sure that sports were ingrained into her life as soon as she could hold a ball.
“I never got a baby doll,” Stevens said. “I remember getting a Wilson softball glove for Christmas, and that was the greatest thing ever.”
That innate drive to win has actually made football a much bigger part of her life. The Stevens family spent more time watching football this fall than they ever had. Sharon Stevens said she had never enjoyed football this much, and she felt like that was the case for other women in the area, too.
“It felt like, ‘I’m not in this for myself, I’m in it for everyone who wouldn’t usually be paying attention to this,’” Stevens said. “There were more people focusing on the paper every Friday and paying attention to the high school games, seeing how they did and who got the games right. Just for a woman to win something like this, it feels like I’ve won more than just for myself.”
Stevens didn’t expect to win any sort of physical prize, only bragging rights. So she was surprised when she walked into The Daily Record office to find what looked like a Lombardi Trophy, which was donated by Frazee’s Trophies.
“I’m going to Disney World!” Stevens joked.
Stevens said she has every intention of coming back next year to defend her title.
“I feel like I’m better prepared now after this year’s experience,” Stevens said. “I think I can do even better next year.”
The Daily Record thanks the other participants — Phil Ferrell, Brian McNeill and Tim McNeill.