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‘Moment of a lifetime’: Circa contest winner earns $1M in final game

Updated January 13, 2024 - 4:11 pm

When Matt Ste. Marie and Ryan Lown signed up for Circa’s NFL handicapping contests for the first time, they were more excited to enter Circa Survivor than the Circa Sports Million.

In fact, Lown didn’t even plan on entering the Million until he arrived in Las Vegas last summer.

“I went to Vegas with every intention of signing up for Survivor,” he said. “At the last minute, I decided to sign up for both and give Millions a shot.”

That whim ended up being worth $500,000 to Lown, who placed second to Ste. Marie in a field of 5,274 entries who paid $1,000 each and made five weekly picks against the spread.

Ste. Marie won $1 million after going 62-27-1 ATS (69.6 percent) to edge Lown (59-27-4) by 1½ points (one point for a win, half point for a push) in the contest with a $6 million guaranteed prize pool.

They had two Survivor entries each and were both eliminated early in the season.

“Probably a big benefit to my Millions entry to get bounced so early in that contest,” said Ste. Marie, 39. “But I still took Millions seriously and wanted to give it my all from the get go. Just more time to focus on Millions once I was out.”

Lown, 44, a San Diego resident who split his entries, including two in the Million, with two friends from his native Wisconsin, felt the same way.

“We were so stoked to be in Survivor, but we were out by Week 4 or 5,” he said. “After that, we said, ‘Let’s lock in on the Million.’ ”

Lown, a married father of two and head of finance for a biotech company who used the contest alias “Rdlown,” didn’t have a losing week until Week 17, when he went 1-4.

Ste. Marie, a married father of two and finance manager in his native Minneapolis who used the alias “Saint31,” also went 1-4 in Week 17, his worst week of the season.

Ste. Marie, who had only one entry in the Million, took a 1½-point lead into Week 18, when it all came down to the Bills-Dolphins game Sunday night.

Clinging to a half-point lead, Ste. Marie needed Buffalo to cover as a 3-point favorite to win the $1 million. Lown needed Miami to win the contest.

“That was super exciting,” said Ste. Marie, who watched Sunday’s games with friends at the Circa sportsbook. “At that point, I knew I locked in second place at worst and I was going to walk out of the contest in the top two with life-changing money, no matter what. It was a great experience.”

Miami made Ste. Marie sweat. It led 14-7 at halftime after Buffalo drove to the 2-yard line but couldn’t snap the ball before time expired. The Bills then lost a fumble deep in Dolphins territory late in the third quarter before Deonte Harty tied the game on a 96-yard punt return early in the fourth quarter.

Buffalo went ahead 21-14 on Josh Allen’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Dawson Knox midway through the fourth quarter.

But Ste. Marie was still sweating when the Bills turned it over on downs at the Miami 37 with two minutes left to Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

“I got real nervous when Allen didn’t convert on fourth-and-inches,” he said. “It was going to come down to Tua driving, and if they get the touchdown, they’ll go for 2, and no matter the outcome, Ryan is the winner and I’m the loser.”

Ste. Marie was finally able to exhale when Taylor Rapp picked off a pass by Tagovailoa to seal the Bills’ 21-14 win.

“It was a big sigh of relief,” he said. “It was kind of a blackout moment of emotions and what it means to me and my family, and me and my friends. The whole gravity of the situation hit me.”

Ste. Marie’s wife, Robin, called him on FaceTime from Minnesota to celebrate their $1 million victory.

“It was a moment of a lifetime,” he said.

Lown said he figured Ste. Marie would pick the Bills, and that’s why he picked the Dolphins.

“It just didn’t turn out our way with the Dolphins covering,” he said. “It was quite the emotional roller coaster of a day. We can’t complain.”

Ste. Marie plans to use the money to put his 5-year-old twins through college.

“Life will be a little simpler now,” he said while driving to the store to get milk for his kids.

Ste. Marie hopes to catch up with Lown on Friday night at the D Las Vegas, where Circa will pay out $15.2 million to the contest winners.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Ste. Marie said.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com. Follow @tdewey33 on X.

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