As Leona Gaither answered questions prior to the Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway challenge on Saturday, the echo from the reporter’s microphone at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was overwhelming.

There were 76,534 people in attendance at the Southeastern Conference football championship game in Atlanta between Georgia and Auburn and millions more watching at home.

Gaither, a King George High School senior, was a finalist for the halftime competition, which would award a $100,000 scholarship to the participant who could toss the most footballs into an oversized replica can of Dr Pepper in 30 seconds.

Gaither quickly settled down and knocked off Houston native Jose Ruiz, 9-6.

Gaither cupped her hands over her mouth in disbelief that college tuition won’t be a burden on her family.

“I didn’t believe it. I still don’t believe it because it happened so fast,” Gaither said in a telephone interview Sunday. “It’s 30 seconds and suddenly you can afford college now.

“I didn’t hear a thing. I didn’t think at all. I just looked over and saw the scoreboard and that I had more. It was a relief.”

Gaither has been accepted to the University of South Carolina. She’s anticipating acceptances from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, Boston University and University of Pennsylvania.

She plans to major in biochemistry.

“We haven’t made our decision yet, but between what South Carolina is offering her and this, she can get out of there with no debt,” said her father, Stephen “Pete” Gaither. “We’re flabbergasted.”

Gaither was one of thousands who initially applied to enter the challenge. The process began by making an online profile connected to Facebook.

In 50 characters or less, applicants had to state their academic goals. Gaither shared her aspirations on Instagram and Twitter in an effort to gain the 50 required votes to move on to the next step. After she acquired the 50 votes, she uploaded a video which was judged by Dr. Pepper representatives.

After Gaither was selected, she had two weeks to prepare. She has little athletic background, playing middle-school softball as a seventh-grader.

She practiced with King George assistant football coach Vern Lunsford at school. When she learned the dimensions of the can she would throw into, her father built a practice contraption she used every day before heading to Atlanta.

“We foster animals, so we have a three-story cat crate that turned out to be the perfect height,” Stephen Gaither said. “I put a two-foot hose together from a dry vac so she could practice throwing footballs because she never threw footballs before this event.”

Twenty finalists were sent out in quartets to the five major college football conference championship game sites. For the SEC title game, a preliminary competition to narrow the field to two was held Friday.

Gaither placed second to Ruiz in preliminaries. His performance on Saturday went viral as he missed the entire can on one occasion, but Gaither took no pleasure in his struggles. Gaither said Ruiz, who still earned $25,000 toward his tuition for placing second, was “really nervous” and they became good friends afterward.

Gaither said her background in band and theater kept her jitters in check.

“Something that I tell myself before performances is, ‘It’s more embarrassing if you do it poorly, so you might as well do it well,’ ” Gaither said. “It can be hard to go up in front of people and do something like that. So my mindset was just to have fun and don’t put any added pressure or stress on myself.”

Gaither has received plenty of congratulatory text messages and phone calls from friends, family, classmates and teachers in King George since her feat. She noted that in a county with just one high school, an accomplishment on the national stage hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“King George is not very large and I think whenever anything happens on this big of a scale, it’s kind of cool,” Gaither said. “I’m very grateful because everybody has been super nice to me and super supportive.

“A college education is an awesome thing and they’re really happy for me to have better accessibility to that opportunity.”

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Taft Coghill Jr: 540/374-5526

tcoghill@freelancestar.com

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