- Chad Millman
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Joe Jamroz has put in his time.
There were three years in the marines during the early 1970s. Then three decades spent as a North Providence mailman, until he retired last October. There's the volunteering he does as the treasurer for his hometown's historical society, which hosted Johnston, Rhode Island's 250th anniversary bash at the senior citizens center on March 15th, Selection Sunday.
So forgive him if he entered not one, not two, not even three, but 10 different brackets in this year's Tourney Challenge. "It only takes about three or four minutes to fill out a bracket," says Jamroz, with an accent that makes me think Peter Griffin is about to reach through the phone and give me a wet Willie. "What's that? 40 minutes? I'm retired. I got time for that."
If you're one of the bracket-addicted hoop heads checking your Challenge standings, you may have noticed all the Jamroz entries. It's hard to miss them. Heading into the Sweet 16, the man with the Marvel Comics last name holds four of the top 15 spots.
Don't feel bad, you're not getting taken by some sharp who spent his younger days running numbers on Federal Hill. Joe's just a fan who's been waiting for one shining moment like this. He used to sneak a transistor radio into school so he could listen to Red Sox games. He raised his two kids on a steady flow of Celtics and Providence Friars hoops. Every other Sunday, about a dozen Jamroz relatives pack into the house to fill their bellies with food and their ears with stories about the greatest New England sports moments ever.
But Joe doesn't gamble til it hurts. He won't spend the weekend breaking down the Syracuse zone. He's not a computer geek with an encrypted betting system that Chloe O'Brien couldn't crack. He's just a 55-year-old dad—his son, Nick, is an Air Force Lieutenant and his daughter, Hayley, works as an interpreter for the deaf—who loves the effort he sees from students who know their jock days are numbered.
"These are just kids having a great time out there," says Joe. "And the mistakes they make are so human. It adds to the excitement."
As soon as the party at the senior center ended on Selection Sunday, Joe ran home to watch the seeding announcements and start taking notes. Last year, he finished 640th in the Tourney Challenge. He wanted to show some improvement this season, since he finally had some time to focus. Quickly, he settled on a strategy: There were seven games he thought were toss ups in the opening round: Dayton vs. West Virginia, Michigan vs. Clemson, Ohio State vs. Siena, Washington vs. Mississippi State, USC vs. Boston College, Florida State vs. Wisconsin and Cleveland State vs. Wake Forest. He was sure of every other game and of his Final Four: Louisville, Pitt, UNC and Memphis.
So in every bracket, he flip-flopped the winners on his undecideds. Joe Jamroz 7, currently in fifth place (behind four teams tied for first), has only three bad picks: WVU beating Dayton, Clemson beating Michigan and Mississippi State over Washington. Joe Jamroz 9, also tied for fifth, lost Michigan-Clemson, WVU-Dayton and Cleveland State-Wake.
But it's Joe Jamroz 4, tied for first overall with just two losses, that is the class of all the Jamroz party mixes. There are still those Michigan-Clemson and West Virginia-Dayton blind spots. But it's got Siena, Wisconsin, Western Kentucky and, holy Mouse McFadden, the Cleveland State win, which will go down as a classic choice when everyone gets together at the Johnstown senior citizen center to relive their favorite Jamroz moments.
"We didn't talk about any of this before," says Nick. "That's why he's on top and I'm at the bottom. He's holding out on me."
For more than two days last week, after the Flyers upset Huggie's boys, Joe went on the kind of streak that comes around as often as a warm New England Winter. Not a single loss on Saturday or Sunday. He had Zona going to the Sweet 16. Purdue in the Sweet 16. The guy was delivering winners as happily as Valentine's.
Most days, Joe is up early stretching, takes an hour and 45-minute walk while listening to some Buddy Guy and then ends his afternoon with some lifting. Sometimes he'll just drop out, hit New Hampshire's White Mountains and pitch a tent for a couple days. But, last weekend, the only time he left his EZ chair was when he headed to Balls Sports Bar & Grill, since it had the package showing every game.
"I really do wait for these games," says Joe. "That's another good part about being retried. I can watch all I want."
Joe's not counting the $10,000 Tourney Challenge prize yet. But, if he wins, he'll help his daughter pay back some college loans, give some dough to his church, take his poker buddies out for dinner and maybe treat a pal to a Red Sox game. Then he'll put a few bucks away and get ready for his new gig.
This spring he'll be back at work, knocking on doors for the U.S. Census Bureau.
Turns out he's not quite done putting in his time.
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Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.
9hMichael C. Wright