- Elizabeth Merrill
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COLLEYVILLE, Texas -- He is barefoot when he answers the door, mop-top hair parted just so his sleepy brown eyes can see you, peach-fuzzed mouth dangling phrases like "freaked out" just so he doesn't scare you. Three thousand five hundred hours of prepping bounced him here, somewhere after his 15 minutes but pre-manhood. But he is unencumbered by doubt or regret.
Samir Patel walks into his impeccably clean room and plops down near a couple of massive books. Dictionaries, of course. Above his bed is a Marines poster to show off, his dad jokes, his "machoness." Across the room rest the trophies and snapshots that made him a cult hero and, in some caustic circles, a bust.
"There's a cute one up there," he says, eyeballing a picture of a cuddly young boy mugging with his mother on the cusp of stardom. "My mom's looking at me like I'm some kind of genius or something. It's kind of creepy."
It is unfair -- and uneducated, really -- that critics dubbed Samir the "Dan Marino of spelling" last summer when he muffed the word "clevis" and finished his fifth and final Scripps National Spelling Bee without a title. Anyone who has stood on that stage, under the hot lights and cameras, knows the bee can be cruelly random.
In 2003, Samir captivated America by playfully breezing past boys and girls in varying stages of adolescence and finishing third at the bee. He didn't really understand what he'd accomplished. He was 9 years old. The next summer, he was tripped up by "corposant" and finished 27th. Every year he studied harder; every trip to Washington, D.C., brought more disappointment. He peaked, by bee standards, at the age of 11 when he finished second.
Now he's 14, with nowhere to go this week when 288 tiny geniuses are in Washington fighting for the final word and maybe a two-minute spot on "Good Morning America." The rock star of the bee will be home, his eligibility over. The TV will be off for some of the competition because his family doesn't have cable. Maybe he'll hum a few bars of "Mrs. Robinson," a song that used to unclutter his head while he sat through the other spellers' turns. Samir doesn't know it's the theme song from a movie about a boy trying to be a man.
"I wouldn't say that I miss it, because after five years it was time to move on to another chapter of my life," he says. "I've had a lot of other stuff to keep my mind busy. I try not to dwell on the past."
The thermometer touches 99 degrees in the Dallas suburbs, and Sudhir Patel wakes up around 3 p.m. and stares out the glass door at his garden. Sudhir is an engineer for a subsidiary of Motorola. He works the graveyard shift while his son, Samir, and wife, Jyoti, sleep. Out in that garden, which Sudhir repeatedly says needs a lot of work, is where the education of Samir began.
Sudhir dug holes; Samir, who was 2, counted them. Daddy has four holes and fills up two. How many holes does that leave, Samir?
"My husband and I we spent a lot of time talking to him when he was younger," Jyoti says. "Not baby talk, just regular like we're talking to him right now. He was just naturally curious, really."
Sudhir started reading to his son while Jyoti was pregnant. He'd put his hand on her stomach, and Samir responded by kicking.
"When he was born, she had a C-section and was kind of out of it," Sudhir says. "So the nurse brought him out and I started talking to him. 'Samir, this is Daddy.' And he was really quiet. He knew my voice."
Samir could read and use a computer before kindergarten but wasn't allowed early admission. Sensing that Samir would be bored in the classroom while his peers learned the alphabet, Jyoti decided to homeschool their only child. "He probably would've lost his edge, you know?" she says. "His zeal for learning."
That never happened. At 7, just for kicks, he entered and won the national spelling bee of the North South Foundation, a nonprofit that sponsors academic competitions for Indian-American students. Two years later, with his tiny white polo neatly buttoned to the top, Patel became a pint-sized icon in D.C.
Mothers cooed when his helium voice confidently belted out Y-A-M-A-M-A-I, which, by the way, is a Japanese silkworm. Teenage girls mobbed him, asking for autographs. Samir just innocently giggled and oozed boyish cuteness.
"Is it just my luck, or am I getting all the French words?" he cracked after one brain buster.
But his preparation was no joking matter. In the Patel house, roughly two hours a day were spent on the bee for five years. And the competition consumed him once he got on stage. In 2005, the year he finished second, he subsisted on just a bag of Doritos and a can of Coke for an entire day.
"People treated him almost like a national athlete or a celebrity sometimes," says former bee participant Jennifer Black, a friend of Samir. "It was a little bit unfair. From what I see on blogs and YouTube clips, I think people forgot he's only a young teenager and not a professional."
The regional spelling bee competitions can be nervous and catty because dozens of kids are fighting for a chance to be seen by all of America. It is there, at the Fort Worth spelling bee, where Samir used to cause young boys and girls to gnash their teeth. But Washington was always a different setting.
Opponents high-five one another after successes and hug and console their peers after failures. The enemy at nationals isn't the kid next to you, Samir says. The enemy is the dictionary and its 450,000 words. You're waiting, for more than an hour sometimes, wondering what comes next. Jyoti taught her son to drown out the other contestants' words. Trying to spell those, she said, would be wasting too much brainpower.
Samir studied, among other things, $10 words and monosyllables. He enjoyed studying phobias the most.
"It's just interesting to see that there are words for what people are afraid of," he says.
On May 31, 2007, Samir confidently walked to the microphone as the overwhelming favorite. He'd spelled words he couldn't define and coolly asked for definitions he already knew. He'd spelled, then had run back to his seat before he found out his spelling was correct because, of course, he was correct. And then came the word "clevis," which he spelled C-L-E-V-I-C-E. The bell rang, and Samir was emotionless.
His dad scurried back to the "comfort room," a place kids can drink a soda and eat a cookie and cry. Samir bypassed the room and headed straight for the TV cameras. He didn't see it, but all of the remaining spellers gave him a standing ovation.
He says it took him "10 seconds" to get over losing his final spelling bee.
"I guess toward the end I got sort of frustrated that hey, I'm spending all this time preparing for the spelling bee and it really doesn't seem to be affecting my outcome," he says. "But then I realized that it was also teaching me some very important life lessons such as persistence and work ethic. I'm glad I did it. I don't have any regrets."
It is vacation time at the Patel house, at least for Samir, because school is over for a few weeks and the kid usually takes time right after the spelling bee to recharge. It was a very busy year. He took up debate and narrowly missed a spot at nationals. He met up with some old friends -- spelling bee graduates -- at the National Vocabulary Championship hosted by the Game Show Network.
And he's whizzed through 20 hours of dual-credit courses at North Lake College in Irving, Texas. Samir scored 2,060 out of 2,400 on the SAT as a seventh-grader. At North Lake, he was the first -- and possibly only -- student to raise his hand in trigonometry class. "I think," professor Jerry Mayfield said in an e-mail, "that he intimidated some of the other students who did not understand his questions."
Samir squirms at the thought that he's not an average teenager. "There is no average, per se," he says. But it's clear the Patel house is no den of teenage slack. There is no Xbox or MTV because Jyoti wanted him to turn to books instead of "mindless shows or cartoons." He doesn't even have a dog, though one of his favorite books is "Rescuing Sprite."
Samir can finish a 150-page book in roughly an hour, and he still gets recognized in grocery stores.
"I don't really think girls would go for my looks," he says. "I'm not the most handsome person ever. My mom thinks I'm too young. Apparently, I'm not allowed to get married 'til I'm 30."
The first few weeks of the spring semester, his government professor, Lou Bradizza, didn't know Samir was so young until he saw the boy walking out of class one day. He didn't know of his spelling bee history, either, until he was flipping the channels at home and saw him do a celebrity appearance on the Food Network.
If Samir were 18, he'd stand among the brightest in the school, Bradizza says, and the fact that he's 14 gives him "potential to be a real star."
"He told me he wanted to get into the [technical] field, but I'm hoping to change his mind. I think a really bright kid like that should be steered into the humanities. If you look around the country, you'll notice our planes are well maintained and fly and don't normally crash, our doctors are competent and we've made big strides in computer technology. But my view is when you have an extremely talented person, the last thing we need is one more computer programmer. The fact that I am thinking this way about him is an indication of how much promise I see in him."
A star? Samir already has been that. He grabs the dictionary in his room, then puts it away. Yes, he says, the spelling bee did define him. But to say he's peaked at 14 now that would really freak him out.
"I'm glad that it happened," he says, "but I'm sure that I can move on and do other things that will make me famous. I'd like to hopefully do something good for the world. I'm not sure what. We'll see."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer at ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Sure, the Scripps National Spelling Bee used to define Samir Patel's life. But no more. And he's fine with that. Just how fine? ESPN.com's Elizabeth Merrill explains.