WASHINGTON – The favorite to win this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee is also a big football fan, so he understood the analogy right away.
If 13-year-old Samir Patel doesn't win the title this year, he would essentially become the Dan Marino of spelling.
Samir, who roots for the Dallas Cowboys from his home in Colleyville, Texas, knows all about Marino's star-crossed 17 years as a quarterback for the Miami Dolphins. Marino is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he never won the big game.
This week, Samir has one last chance to avoid a similar fate as he returns to the national spelling bee for a fifth time. The 80th annual bee, featuring 286 competitors from the English-speaking parts of the world, opens Wednesday with the preliminary round and concludes with a prime-time finish Thursday night.
"If I had to predict who's going to win -- which is a very dangerous thing to do -- I would guess that Samir has a very good chance," said James Maguire, who profiled Samir in the book "American Bee." "If another bad stroke of luck comes along and he needs to go home without the trophy, yeah, I think there would be sort of a bittersweet feeling."
Samir charmed the country with a stunning third-place finish as a super-confident 9-year-old four years ago, showing charisma beyond his years and a vocabulary to match. He looked every bit the part of future champion.
Then, in 2004, he stumbled on the word "corposant" and finished tied for 27th. He came close in 2005 but was flummoxed by "Roscian" and placed second. Last year, the audience gasped in shock when the familiar face failed to spell "eremacausis," forcing him to settle for a tie for 14th.
"I feel I've been trying my hardest for the last few years and it hasn't worked out," Samir said. "But life is not completely about the spelling bee and I've learned to realize that. But I will be very disappointed if I don't win."
Samir, who is a home-schooled student, is the only speller in this year's field returning for the fifth time. He's not the oldest -- there are plenty of 14-year-olds and even a 15-year-old -- but he will no longer be eligible after this year because he is completing the eighth grade. His reputation is such that the bee's director asked him to speak at the opening assembly Tuesday night.
"Because he's known, the pressure is more on him," said Jyoti Patel, Samir's mother and coach. "And if he doesn't perform, it causes disappointment. But being in the bee for five years we've realized there are so many surprise words, and you don't know who's going to get them or when they're going to come up. ... There is a lot of luck of the draw involved."
Samir shrugged off questions about pressure. He and his mother agreed that she feels it more than he does. In fact, she gets so nervous that during the actual week of the bee she turns over the coaching duties to Samir's father, Sudhir. "He's the calming influence," she said.
Samir has grown up before the eyes of a nation, albeit in one-year increments. He is taller, more mature, better able to handle disappointments than the little boy who needed a hug from his mother to ease the tears four years ago. He is well-rounded -- piano and swimming are among his regular activities -- but lately his free time has been devoted to one mission.
"As it comes closer," he said, "I'm trying to scrounge every possible minute to study spelling."
Next week, something odd will happen in Samir's life. No more big spelling bees. Win or lose, the weight of the dictionary will be lifted off his shoulders.
What will he do?
"I plan on entering other competitions," Samir said. "Math competitions and debate, hopefully. I'll still be busy."