By Matt Youmans
VSiN Senior Editor
On Sunday afternoons in the fall, in remote fields 70 miles southwest of Chicago, one of the sharpest NFL handicappers in the country could be found driving a tractor. From before sunrise to after sunset, Mark Jorstad harvested corn and soybeans.
Along the way, he picked up enough point-spread winners to collect a second-place check for $358,192 in the Westgate SuperContest.
“I don’t think the pros are real keen on this happening,” Jorstad said with a laugh.
There are a variety of routes to football handicapping success, and Jorstad drove a tractor down the path less traveled. A 61-year-old farmer from the small town of Morris, Illinois, he ignored analytics and rarely watched games while compiling a 53-29-3 record against the spread.
Only a Starbucks barista from Las Vegas was better. Damon Graham, 32, posted a 54-28-3 mark (65.9 percent) to beat the record field of 1,854 entries to win $895,482.
In recent years, the nation’s most prestigious NFL handicapping contest has been “dominated by unknowns,” Westgate sports book director Jay Kornegay said. Graham and Jorstad defined that description.
“I can tell when people say it’s a great story, they are frustrated by it and shaking their head about how they could get beat by a barista and a farmer,” Kornegay said. “Mark’s a cool guy. He’s a humble Midwestern guy.”
Jorstad farms about 3,000 acres, so he had little time to study statistics or watch TV. He listened to SiriusXM Radio in his tractor while reading sports stories on his phone.
“I graduated from high school and I was already a full-time farmer,” Jorstad said. “We put in about 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, if it’s not raining. We start harvesting about the week after Labor Day and we try to wrap up before Thanksgiving. Until Thanksgiving, I doubt I watched six games. That’s about it.”
He did watch the regular-season finale because he had a play on the Green Bay Packers minus-3½ at Detroit. The Packers won 31-24, securing sole possession of second place for Jorstad instead of dropping him into a costly seven-way tie.
“I will never have another game in my life when I have $250,000 riding on it,” said Jorstad, who went 2-3 in Week 17. “I was hoping to not have a dumpster fire and drop to about 40th.
“I’m a Bears fan, but I don’t play Bears games. Aaron Rodgers definitely did me real well this season.”
Jorstad, a lifelong college basketball fan, rarely places a bet on a football game. But in early August, when he flew to Las Vegas to register for the SuperContest, he did play a couple of opinions. He bet the Cleveland Browns under 4½ and the Bears under 7 wins.
“Those were two teams I felt were going to have disastrous years,” he said.
This was Jorstad’s fifth shot at the SuperContest. In his first year in 2012, he collected around $11,000 for finishing in the top 15.
“The discussion between me and my sons was maybe I should quit then because of the chances of lighting striking twice,” said Jorstad, who failed to cash the next three years.
He and his wife of 40 years, Peg, have two sons who are University of Illinois graduates and SuperContest entrants. Jorstad said he laughed while listening to his sons and their friends break down statistics while debating their five weekly picks.
“I said, ‘I think you guys are getting paralyzed you are analyzing it so much,’” he said. “Before the lines come out, I circle who I think is going to win the game. I play quarterbacks and the travel thing. I will not play a team going from the West Coast to the East Coast or from the East Coast to the West Coast. I don’t like playing rivalry games like Cowboys-Redskins. If the Thursday night game is one of my top five games, I’m playing it.”
And he considers the advice of a so-called expert. While driving his tractor, Jorstad said he listened to a SiriusXM host - whom he refused to identify so as to not embarrass him - talk about his best bets.
“When he says, ‘That’s my lock,’ then I say I’m going the other way,” Jorstad said, again with a laugh.
He played on the best quarterbacks and against the worst, which sounds simplistic but proves effective. So, in the Super Bowl, how does he decide between two of the league’s best quarterbacks? He prefers the experience and reliability of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who are 3-point favorites over Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.
“When it comes down to me trying to pick a side, if I’m going to put my money on Ryan or Brady, I’m putting my money on Brady,” he said. “Coaching is way more important than most people realize. If this was a SuperContest game, I’m on the Patriots.”
Count on him entering the SuperContest again next season.
“You put $1,500 down and you have a chance to win $1 million. For about $100 a week, it’s the best entertainment I could have in my life,” he said. “I’m realistic. I won’t expect to be in the winner’s circle anytime in the near future. Honestly, it takes a lot of luck.”