The Marine "really didn't want to go and get crucified" at the final 3, so fell on his sword for the sake of both Sarah and his own mental health.

By Dalton Ross
May 14, 2020 at 11:07 AM EDT
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Survivor

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What was he thinking?!? That was undoubtedly the reaction of millions of Survivor: Winners at War viewers when Ben Driebergen — just two days away from the end of the game — gave his biggest ally permission to vote him out of the game. Why would the Heroes v. Healers v Hustlers champ throw away his chance at $2 million? Probably because he knew that chance didn’t really exist.

Ben was able to read the jury and knew he had no viable path to his second Survivor title, so fell on his sword in the hopes of helping someone else achieve the dream. It was a bold move for a guy who has openly struggled with personal demons, and a sign that he valued his own mental health over the status (and some extra money) that a few more days in the game would have provided.

We spoke with Ben just minutes after the finale finished airing to get his take on the shocking decision, some insight into his mysterious feud with Jeremy, and intel on what we didn’t see on TV. And the man sounds truly at peace with his Survivor journey.

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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Well, we just watched it all go down. How are you doing Ben?

BEN DRIEBERGEN: Good! It's a pleasure to be here, and an honor too. It's awesome to be able to talk with you.

Let’s get right to it because it's the question everyone's asking. You're sitting there, there are only five players left, you're probably the best fire maker in the bunch. Nothing in this game's ever guaranteed, but the road is wide open for you to get to the final three. It would be your second straight game of going the distance, and then you give permission to Sarah to vote you out. Now, I'm watching this to myself and I'm thinking, "No way does Ben do this if he thinks he has a chance of winning at the end." And I saw you even joke at one point that you weren't very popular out there after having the disadvantage played on you and not getting any advantages or Fire Tokens sent your way. So, is that what part of this decision was about, you reading the writing on the wall with the jury?

Absolutely. When Michele's getting all these game tokens, and I'm getting disadvantaged from the Edge played on me, you can kind of gauge as how the jury — because that's who's over there on the Edge — is perceiving your game. And so when Natalie came back in and told us everything about what was going on, I knew I wasn't respected on the jury. I played very hard, I built a lot of relationships, and then those relationships fell apart and ultimately ended up hurting me in the long run. And so I really didn't want to go and get crucified. At the end of the jury, with the way I conducted my game, I just wanted to get to the end, kind of deal. And so I knew I was in for a hurting.

Survivor takes a huge mental toll on you. And coming home, wondering if you'd won a million dollars? And so knowing that Sarah, Tony, and I took it to the end and I would get scraped across the coals there, mentally coming home and trying to deal with if I had won $2 million or whatever, it just wasn't something where I wanted to be at life. I'm happy where I'm at in life. And I want $2 million, but Tony winning the game and being perceived as the biggest target and the best one to win was factual, right? He played a heck of a game out there. And when I lost that challenge, Sarah and I had talked about possibly taking Tony out. Like, we knew Tony was a big threat, but our goal was to get to the end.

And so after Tony won his last immunity, it was like, Tony is going to win this for sure. And Sarah was my number one. Tony was my number two. I wasn't going to write Tony's name down to leave. And I still had my little loyalty with Sarah. And that's what it came down to was I really wanted to help her out and I didn't want her to feel like she was getting dragged to the end by Tony or myself. Because the three of us worked really hard from the merge on to stay together and do all this crazy stuff, even after the Sophie blindside. But I credited it to because we're all very paranoid and high-strung people, and so we could do that with each other, we could bounce it off each other. And then that's why I think we worked so good with each other.

Tony is who he is on TV, right? And Sarah is an amazing player and amazing person, too. And so when you build that bond of friendship and gameplay, it was easy to really work with each other and support each other. But when it came down to that moment, it was just something that that's who I am, right? I would do anything for my friends and do anything for my family. And in that moment I saw a friend in need kind of deal, and I knew that I could help her out as opposed to being selfish, to go to the end and know that I couldn't win kind of deal.

That's interesting, because even if you say, “Okay, there's no path to the $2 million,” you are still sacrificing money by doing that in the sense that you would've picked up a bit more green if you had gotten yourself into even the three spot, right?

Right. Right. But what I did with my million the first time was I invested it. That's not a lot of money, and I said it on the show, and after taxes it is not a lot of money. But what I've done to financially set for my family with the amount I have is not a lot, but it's enough to be like, you know what? Money's not everything. Being able to tuck my kids in tonight and hug my wife and now being able to have friends in the Survivor community that I can trust and my friends back home. When I came home for the first time, I played a great game in some people's eyes, but I was a bull in a china shop, right? I had to get through and get to the end. And I won a million dollars, it was fantastic.

But people also looked at me in a different light. Some of them looked at me like, "Oh, the big, bad Marine, he got to the end," which that was a part of my life at one point, but that's not who I am now. If you focus on negativity and hurting people, that's going to be your outcome in life. But I always say stay positive, stay humble. Because if you focus on the positivity in life, you look at what you have and not what you need or what you can get.

You look at what you have in your life and if you are happy with what you have in your life, then you're in a positive spot. Nothing else can matter, no matter how much money you have, how much bank account roles or cars or whatever you have, if you have little amount like I had before, we were very, very happy. And then we got some money and it was amazing, and we're very happy now. But the game was more about being a human this time, as opposed to being a Survivor castaway, if that makes sense.

What I found really interesting is that you said at one point that you wanted to “not go back home and not like the person I was.” And you've been very open on the show and in talking to me in interviews, talking about your personal demons. And when I heard that quote, I wondered, does that mean that you did not like the person that came home from season 35?

Not that I didn't like the person, but I saw how I could treat people. And I saw that, yes, when I have a goal, no matter what, I can accomplish that goal. But what do I do getting to that goal, right? How many people am I elbowing out of the way just to get to the finish line and be like, "Yeah, I won." But nobody cares that you won if you just elbowed everybody out of the way. And so this time was to build those relationships. And I really did build those relationships out there. And with Tony and Sarah and Denise talking about enduring and let go. Right? And so this was a scene where the fire is crackling and I'm thinking about stuff.

Because there's things that I've done and experienced in the past that still weigh on me today. And it's like, "Am I a good person?" And to answer your question as to 35, it was like, I didn't know if I was a good person. And to be able to make solid friendships with Mama D and I got tattoos on my wrist, just like her. We really bonded out there. All four of us did. And that's what I focused on this time. And maybe did I over-correct because I wanted to build a relationship so bad? Possibly.

But can I look in the mirror this time when I come home and be like, "You know what? You're proud of yourself, man. You did good. You got off the couch, went and played Survivor and won it. And then when you played Survivor all-winners you went out in a way that your family can be proud of and your friends can be proud of. And I can look in a mirror at myself, more importantly, not what everyone else thinks, but I can look in the mirror and be proud of who I am and the game I play. And that's all that matters.

I remember talking to you before the game, and you really wanted to prove that you could do well in this game without detonating Ben bombs all over the place. You used one at the very end there, but you made it all the way to finale night without playing an idol. So you must feel you were successful in that mission.

Yes. And you focus on the positive. That's an amazing feat for me, right? For me as a player and as a castaway, for me to get to the finale without using an idol and using relationships. And there's a reason I wasn't voted out first. I went to plenty of Tribals. Michelle talks about going to all the Tribals. I think she went to one more Tribal than I did. And we were both never immune, right? That should be a testament to both of our social games. She's an amazing player. And she's very positive. And she played an amazing game as well. And neither of us were on the chopping block until the end. And so, yeah, for me, I'm happy with that.

That was my goal. And I did it. My goal was to win $2 million. But you can't look at like you quit, and if there were seven goals on the board and if you just don't check off one of those goals, you're going to be down about it. Look at the other six goals you checked off. Like running through the forest after I found an idol awkwardly with Tony. And then carrying him off and he's screaming. "No!" Right. So much good positive experiences came out of this. That it was worth it in so many ways.

We saw that you and Jeremy having this sort of mini-feud, but we never really understood what it was about or where it started or how it happened. Is there any sort of light you can shed on that?

You asked me before the game, "Who do you want to work with?" And Jeremy was one of the guys I wanted to work with. Day one, we hit the beach and I am just scared. I'll be honest. I'm nervous like, "Holy cow, I'm out on the beach." Jeremy is a firefighter, and I was in the military, so for me, it was comfortable to talk with him and Tony and Sarah. And so day one, I was like, "Okay, well, we can have that bond." And so I went to him and fully just opened up, was like, "Dude, I respect your game. I respect who you are. I really want to work with you. And I think if you and I can stick together and get to the merge, we can hook up with Tony and Sarah. And we can get to the end."

And so he's like, "Yeah. Yeah." He's giving me the go ahead. And so then we start walking up these stairs and he's behind me. And I turn around and look, and he's giving the, "This guy's is a clown," look to the camera. And so I called him out at him. I was like, "Jeremy, what are you doing, dude?" And he's like, "Oh, I'm just doing my thing. And y'all let me do my thing." And I'm like, "Okay. So this is how Survivor works." I got to let him do his thing. I can't blow up. I can't get mad." Initially I'm like, "Oh man, this is not good." But it is the card I was dealt at that time. I just forfeited all my information to him. He was not having it. And he got caught not having it. But I had to let that go and try to work with him and build that bond with him.

And then it got down to the end, and you look on the jury and who's over there, and everybody's going to vote for Jeremy because he is likable. And he is a nice guy. But in the game of Survivor, you have to have targets and you have to put targets on people's back. And, unfortunately, Jeremy had all his friends with the poker alliance, the old schoolers, he's a very likable man. I couldn't be in the game with him anymore. And so that's what it came down to targeting Jeremy. And the game makes you very stressed. The game is a $2 million game and we butted heads and there's editing that wasn't shown and everything like that. But what it boils down to is, it's just a game. And I respect Jeremy as a man and as a winner and as a Survivor player and as a firefighter. So there's no hard feelings between Jeremy and I. And I wish him and Val and the kids all the best.

Is there anything else that happened out there that we didn't get to see that you wish had made it into an episode?

I would do stuff for the experience of fun and positivity, like that big slide. I went head-first backwards after Jeff's like, "Okay, head off to camp." And I just laid on my back and went down backwards. And so, for me, it was so draining out there. The game was so fast. I mean, you look at Sarah and Tony and I, we were just sunken in and Michelle, right? And then you look at Nat and she's all peanut buttered up, ready to come back in like a spitfire. And she did, she was amazing. That was her game. And she did very good out there on the Edge, getting all the tokens and stuff. But for us in the game, betraying these people and betraying our friends, it was mentally and physically exhausting and you could see it on our faces. But being able to take that moment out on a slide and just be like, "This is going to be an adrenaline rush."

And I remember Jeff being like, "Okay, everybody, head back to camp." And I just kicked my legs up and went head-first backwards on my back, down a slide. And I was like, "Okay, we're still having fun. Even though you're drained, even though you're tired, even though you just lost immunity to Michelle, you're still having fun." And so that's what I really tried to do out there, was just stay focused, stay positive and not lose who I was as a man and as a father, as a husband.

Well, listen, I'm glad you took yourself out of the game, just so I can take a gander at that incredible horseshoe mustache you were rocking at Tribal Council!

How about that? When I got to Ponderosa, I tried to trim my beard up and it didn't work out very well. And so I wasn't going to go full clean shave, and then that's what we ended up with. My wife made me shave when I got home.

Watch an exclusive deleted scene above, and make sure to also read our full finale recap as well as finale interviews with winner Tony Vlachos , runner-up Natalie Andersonfinalist Michele FitzgeraldSarah Lacina, Denise Stapley, and host Jeff Probst. And for more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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