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September 14, 2009   Email to Friend 

Alabama Survivors
Debra Davis

From top, J.T. Thomas, Debbie Bebee and Bobby Jon Drinkard.
They are about as different as any three people could be. One is a cattle rancher, another a middle school principal, and the other hosts a TV show. But the three are forever bound by their experiences as participants in the popular TV reality show "Survivor," and they all reside in Alabama.

J.T. Thomas won the survivor challenge during the 2009 season of CBS' show "Survivor: Tocantins -- The Brazilian Highlands." In addition to winning the show's $1 million prize, the Samson native received an extra $100,000 fan-favorite bonus where viewers voted him the most popular person on the show.

Another Alabamian among the finalists on this year's show was Debbie Bebee, a self-proclaimed "girly-girl" and principal of J.F. Drake Middle School in Auburn. She was on the show for 33 days before being voted off. Just months before heading off to Brazil for the show, she was named Alfa's Principal of the Month in July 2008. For that, both she and her school received $1,000 from Alfa and the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Then there's Alabama's first "Survivor" cast member. Bobby Jon Drinkard was a contestant on "Survivor: Palau" in 2005. He finished 10th in that series and after being asked back to "Survivor: Guatemala" the next season, finished ninth. His hard work ethic earned him the nickname, Tarzan on the series.

"Survivor" contestants are isolated in the wilderness and compete for cash and other prizes as they try to outwit, outplay and outlast the other 15 contestants they are chosen to compete against. The show uses a system of progressive elimination, allowing the contestants to vote off other tribe members until only one final contestant remains and wins the title of "Sole Survivor".

Back home from his winning adventure, Thomas manages a ranch that raises registered Angus cattle in Mobile County along with a large herd of crossbred beef cows in Lowndes County. He said working outdoors probably gave him some advantage when the show headed to Brazil, and as for sleeping outdoors, he said, "Shoot, we used to do that for fun when I was growing up."

Likewise, Drinkard, a native of Goshen, said growing up hunting, fishing and working outdoors on a farm helped equip him with some "survivor" skills that came in handy on the show.

But Bebee, who grew up in Chicago and has lived in Auburn for 11 years, said the harsh conditions of the show were a shock to her system.

"Gosh, I had never gone to the bathroom outside, or slept outdoors," she said. "People are surprised to learn that we really didn't have anything when we were on the show. No toothpaste, not toilet paper - nothing. But I learned you can get by with a lot less than you think you can."

Bebee said the film crews never ate or drink in front of the contestants. They are taken to another location on the island when they weren't filming. She said the hardest thing about the show for her was being uncomfortable 24 hours a day.

"I just was never comfortable," she said. "In the daytime it was 126 degrees. I thought it was hot here in Alabama, but just wasn't prepared for anything like that, and the bugs were horrendous. I did finally get used to the bugs, snakes and spiders, but after sweating all day, then it would drop to 40 degrees at night, and we were wet with sweat. We were wet all the time, and it was just miserable and really hard. I lost toenails and had feet issues - it was just horrible."

Thomas said probably the most challenging part of the game was reading people and trying not to be threatening to anyone. "If you're much of a threat, they'll vote you off to eliminate you," he said. "I did play up the sweet, country boy part a little bit," he added with a sheepish grin. "But really, I was myself most of the time, and folks from up North just don't really know how to take that. I've always worked hard, and I wasn't ever afraid that I couldn't survive in the wilderness, it was the people you had to worry about. They can turn against you and vote you off and you're done; it would be over."

Drinkard agrees.

"I think a lot of it has to do with who you play the game with, too," Drinkard said. "My first time, I was in a tribe that just couldn't win any of the challenges so I had that working against me. But even though I didn't win, I don't regret being a part of 'Survivor.' It's opened a lot of doors for me and taught me a lot about myself and about other people.

"You strip somebody of all their worldly goods and you put them in a position where they have to provide for their self with just their own skills -- no money, nothing -- and the real person comes out. Sometimes that person isn't what you thought it would be."

All three say the experience changed their lives forever. For Thomas, winning the game brought more rewards than just money - although he admits that's the reason he wanted to be on the show.

"The most expensive thing I've bought so far was a $400 guitar," he said, adding that he may return it because it seems extravagant. He paid the taxes on his earnings, set up college funds for his 11 nieces and one nephew, has invested some of the money and is saving most of it.

"I refuse to be among those statistics you read about," Thomas said. "When some people come into money, they act like it's gonna last forever. I know that's not the way it is. I grew up without having a lot, and I think it's made me a better person. It's made me appreciate what I have now. But I'm not going to blow it all."

After the show, Thomas returned to the ranch and still works like he did before, except his weekends are usually busy making public appearances for charity fundraisers with other cast members.

Bebee returned to her job as a principal in Auburn and participates in fundraisers organized by the show as well. She said the show gave her a better appreciation for students who are less fortunate.

"I know what it's like to be hungry now," she said. "I was compassionate before, but now I really know what it feels like to not have all you want to eat."

For Drinkard, his two appearances on the show eventually parlayed into his career as host of "On the Job," a program on Alabama Public Television that showcases unique and often overlooked companies and educational opportunities in Alabama.

"I think one reason the contestants from Alabama do well is our strong sense of right and wrong," Drinkard said. "We're taught at an early age what's right and wrong. Some may not choose to follow the right path, but I think the way we treat people catches folks from other parts of the country off guard. We're just more genuine here in the South. We really can survive."


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