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Steelworker wins $100,000 in Buffett’s March Madness bracket

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett surprised one of his company’s steelworkers when he called informing the man he’d won $100,000 for his March Madness bracket.

What do you do when Warren Buffett calls to offer you $100,000?

If you’re Dwayne Johnson, you might ask the billionaire to consider sweetening the deal.

Johnson, who works in a steel factory in Huntington, West Virginia, was sitting on his couch Saturday afternoon when Buffett called to tell him that, with 31 out of 32 correct predictions in his March Madness bracket, he’d be winning $100,000 of the billionaire’s money. (If Johnson had correctly called South Carolina’s victory over Marquette, he would’ve received a cool $1 million.)

"He was very generous and kind," Johnson said of Buffett. "But I did mention that, well, since I was so close to getting all 32 right, maybe he could offer a consolation prize? Maybe half-a-million dollars?"

Alas, Buffett laughed off the request. But Johnson says he’s not complaining.

Every year, Buffett offers $100,000 to the Berkshire Hathaway employee with the most accurate bracket. If someone had correctly guessed all 32 winners, plus the 16 winners on Saturday and Sunday, Buffett would have awarded them $1 million a year for life. More than 96,000 employees entered the contest this year.

Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway owns more than 90 companies including Geico and Fruit of the Loom, is known for being an ardent promoter of his brands. He didn’t pass up a chance to make a plug during his 10-minute phone call with Johnson, either: "He asked me about my boys, whether they were basketball fans," Johnson recalled. "And then he said, ‘If you buy them a basketball, make sure it’s a Spalding.’ " (Spalding, which is part of Russell Brands, is owned by Berkshire Hathaway.)

Johnson says the $105,000 in winnings – which include an additional $5,000 from his employer, Precision Castparts – will help him pay off credit card debt and buy a new car. He also plans to save six months’ worth of expenses in case he loses his job, something he says he has worried about in recent months after widespread layoffs at the steel mill where he has worked for nearly 10 years. He makes $21.13 an hour as a welder at the company, which Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway purchased two years ago for nearly $32 billion.

"It doesn’t look great with our future here," Johnson, 36, said. "Outside of this plant, employment options aren’t the greatest. I’ve been pretty worried about that, even after a windfall like this."

This wasn’t the first year Johnson tried his hand at Buffett’s bracket challenge. Last year he enlisted the help of his three sons to vet his picks. They didn’t make it very far.

This year, he changed his strategy.

"I was laying on my couch, about to go to bed one night and I thought, ‘Let me fill out my bracket real quick,’ " he said. He did a couple of Google searches and, within 30 minutes, submitted his picks by phone.

Then he went to bed and mostly forgot about basketball.

It wasn’t until Friday evening, when he looked online after the University of Cincinnati’s win over Kansas State, that he realized he was one of just five employees with perfect brackets. But a few hours later, when Michigan State beat Miami, Johnson was the only one who remained. On Saturday morning, he received an email saying he’d won the $100,000 prize.

Johnson said he was in shock: "I checked my pulse probably around 12 times to make sure I wasn’t going to stroke out," he said.

His wife, Amber, who works as a secretary in a doctor’s office, was a bit more skeptical.

"She lovingly rolled her eyes, and said, ‘Yeah, okay,’" he said. "She didn’t believe me at first."

Johnson says he plans to use his winnings, which will be taxed, to take his family to Disney World this spring and perhaps buy his wife a new purse. But after that, he says the money is going in the bank. (He received the $5,000 from Precision Castparts on Monday and says he promptly used it to make a payment on his house. He expects to have the larger $100,000 check by next week.)

As for his three sons – ages 5, 9 and 10 – Johnson says they’re ecstatic.

"I told them right after it happened: ‘Daddy won a lot of money,’" Johnson recalled. "My oldest one said, ‘Does that mean I can have $40?’"

Johnson told him he would do him one better: "How about $100?"