Jeff Probst was right. Utahn Todd Herzog really was one of the best players in "Survivor" history good enough to win the million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor on the hit CBS series' season finale on Sunday night.
Herzog is a self-professed "Survivor" fanatic who said he's seen every episode of the previous 14 seasons. He was 15 when the show premiered (not 14, as host Probst incorrectly said on air) and couldn't wait until he was old enough to apply to be on the series.
His fanaticism paid off. Herzog demonstrated from the beginning of "Survivor: China" that he had a plan.
"I knew coming in the game that I was not the most physical. But I knew that I could be the most strategic," Herzog said. "This is my dream come true. I've lived my dream."
He received four of the seven votes cast by members of the jury. Two went to Courtney Yates; one went to Amanda Kimmel. When Probst read the final vote that gave him the million dollars, Herzog literally jumped for joy, celebrating with his family at CBS Television City in Hollywood. And viewers across the country saw Herzog's friends celebrating in his hometown of Pleasant Grove.
After outwitting, outplaying and outlasting their competitors for 39 days, the final three contestants have to convince seven eliminated players to vote to give them the million dollars. Herzog eschewed what generally happens on "Survivor." He didn't apologize for the gamesmanship that got him to the brink of victory, he embraced it.
"I backstabbed and lied to a lot of them, but I was playing a game," said Herzog, adding, "I feel like I've accomplished so much, and I'm so proud."
And he clinched the win with one of the greatest answers ever heard on "Survivor." Eliminated, embittered contestant Jean-Robert Bellande started to confront Herzog for betraying him when Herzog quickly turned things around.
"I had to get rid of my biggest strategic threat, who was you," Herzog told him.
And it worked. "Basically, he changed my mind ... with his answers right there," Bellande said.
As it turned out, Herzog was playing the game even then.
"Yeah, I played him," he said.
Herzog was the first Utahn to win on "Survivor." Neleh Davis came close in May 2002, losing a 4-3 vote and finishing second on "Survivor: Marqueses."
He's the second Utahn to win $1 million on a prime-time reality/competition show. Shawn Nelson pulled it off in January 2005 when he won the little-watched Fox series "The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best."
Although the 22-year-old flight attendant was identified as a "gay Mormon" in the season premiere on the CBS Web site, neither topic came up even once during the remainder of the series at least not in anything that was seen by viewers at home.
Herzog will receive his $1 million check on this morning's edition of "The Early Show" on CBS and talk more about his experience on "Survivor: China."
"I knew the second I got out there, that no matter what it took, I would do everything I possibly could to be sitting right here," said Herzog, whose plans ran into some rough patches but never fell apart."I can't believe it worked!"