Shana Muhammad ’06 wasn’t a crier or a gambler, but now she was doing both.
In front of her sat a contract, and in front of that, a TV camera, recording each agonizing moment in a network gameshow that had yet to air.
A cross between Plinko and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The Wall gave a pair of teammates the chance to win up to $12 million.
They could also walk away with nothing.
It was a game of ability and chance, and Muhammad had plenty of the former. Host Chris Hardwick would call her the smartest contestant they’d ever had.
Before he’d sent her into isolation, as the gameshow rules required, she and her teammate had answered a flurry of questions correctly, racking up $90,000. If she signed the contract now, they’d walk away with no less than that. If she tore it up, she stood to win much more—or lose it all.
That was where Muhammad found herself, hands pressed against her face and tears falling freely.
Ninety thousand dollars was an unimaginable sum—more than she’d ever had in her bank account. But what if Muhammad and her teammate, cousin Jakia Muhammad, could take home even more?
Shana Muhammad rested her palm against her forehead in the show that aired Monday night on NBC.
She made her decision.
A dream and a chance
That Shana Muhammad had ended up on a game show at all seemed improbable. She was, by her own account, conservative, the manager of a local grocery store in Washington, D.C., who worked hard and paid her bills and took care of her family.
She’d grown up in Northern Virginia, the daughter of a single mother who insisted she get a college degree.
During her senior year of high school, Shana Muhammad applied to six state colleges and got into all of them. But the moment she stepped foot on the University of Mary Washington campus, she knew there was no other place for her. The other schools offered bigger scholarships. But she didn’t want to go to another school.
“I didn’t want to be a number. I wanted to be able to participate actively and be a part of the community,” she said.
She joined too many clubs to count and spent all four years as a student guide. After earning a degree in business administration, the first generation college graduate stayed at UMW for a year as an admissions counselor. She is still a class agent.
Later, she joined her cousin in D.C. Jakia Muhammad worked for a nonprofit that delivers meals to seniors across the city. She also had a dream: Find some way to fix up their grandmother’s home in South Carolina.
Built by the women’s great-grandfather decades ago, the house had never been updated. It had no HVAC system and needed a new roof.
Jakia Muhammad had researched shows on HGTV that might help. Then along came a casting call in D.C. for a new gameshow called The Wall.
“I will indulge you,” Shana Muhammad remembered saying.
“We didn’t think anything of it. All of a sudden, we made it all the way to Hollywood,” she said.
Risking it all
Beneath the stage lights, in the shadows of the four-story wall for which the show was named, the cousins correctly answered a series of questions about popular culture in a matter of minutes.
Each right answer gave them the chance to send green balls down the wall and into slots marked with dollar amounts. As Shana Muhammad headed into isolation, their earnings stood at $90,000.
Now the UMW grad would have to answer questions alone, unaware if she got them right or wrong or how much money they’d earned or lost.
Out on stage, Jakia Muhammad decided how much risk to take. But the final risk fell to Shana Muhammad, who had to choose between $90,000 and the unknown.
The unknown could be so much more—“more opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people we care about,” she said on camera.
Sending Jakia Muhammad back to school for a master’s degree. Helping out relatives from Haiti. Making their grandmother’s house the best it could be.
And so the woman who didn’t so much as play the lottery risked everything.
All of it was a gamble, she decided in that final moment. Auditioning for the show and flying to Hollywood and standing under all these lights.
When the cousins were reunited on stage, Shana Muhammad explained that.
“We may have come out here with nothing. Even if we may leave here with nothing, it never will be nothing. Our love for each other and our family is worth more than any amount of money,” she said.
Jakia Muhammad looked back at her cousin, quiet for a moment.
The bet paid off, she told her
They were going home with more than half a million dollars – $565,423, to be exact
The woman who didn’t cry nearly collapsed to her knees in tears.