ESPN’s John Saunders lived a painful life
I thought I knew John Saunders, but I had no clue.
He was just a damn good guy, a friendly, funny, and insightful television companion. I was fortunate to spend 14 years at his side on the set of ESPN’s Sunday morning staple, “The Sports Reporters,” and it was a true shock when I got a phone call in August of 2016 from the show’s producer, Joe Valerio, telling me that John had passed away the night before. Yes, we all knew he had a variety of health problems, most notably diabetes, but when we parted the previous Sunday he appeared to be just fine. In fact, our last conversation had involved getting together ASAP in New York with our wives.
But the next shock came at John’s wake. That’s when a man named John U. Bacon told us that he had been working with John on a book that would detail his horrible battle with depression and that the book would be published posthumously.
Depression? Sure, there were times when we had noted that John was not in a particularly great mood that day, but that most often happened in the fall when he had a crushing weekend workload, what with his lengthy Saturday studio duties during the college football season, followed by the necessity of arriving at 6 a.m. Sunday for a taping of “The Sports Reporters.” But even on those days we never went very far without a big laugh.
Well, the book is out. It’s called “Playing Hurt” (Da Capo Press) and it is a chilling read for anyone, but especially for those of us who loved John and thought we knew him pretty well.
We didn’t know that John had been severely abused, both physically and emotionally, by his father, Bernie Sr. We didn’t know that the young John Saunders had been repeatedly molested by an older teenage girl. We didn’t know that John had been a fairly serious teenage pothead back home in Canada and that he and his buddies had even gotten into dealing, accompanied on occasion by some breaking and entering.
And we didn’t know that the end result of all this was an endless struggle with a depression that included some self-mutilation and never-ending thoughts of suicide.
What we did know was that on Sept. 10, 2011, John’s life had taken a serious turn downward when a simple walk to the set for a halftime report was never concluded because, after mysteriously blacking out, John fell backward, hitting his head on the floor and sustaining a serious brain injury. We knew that. What we didn’t know was how that additional complication in his life exacerbated the depression that had taken up residence decades before. He would spend the rest of his life trying desperately to be the same public John Saunders we all loved and respected, while battling the demons attacking him within.
Thus, “Playing Hurt.” Here is what John Saunders had in mind: “Mine is rare story,” he wrote. “That of a black man in the sports industry openly grappling with depression. I will share the good, the bad, and the ugly, including the lengths I’ve gone to conceal my private life from the public. So why write a book? Because I want to end the pain and heartache that comes from leading a double life. I also want to reach out to the millions of people, especially men, who think they’re alone and can’t ask for help.”
Since John died before it was completed, co-author Bacon explains that he finished up with the help of John’s family, friends, and physicians. “But in the end this is John’s story, told from his point of view, based primarily on his recollections,” Bacon explains.
It was a fascinating life, for sure. He was a very good athlete who was good enough, early enough, to dream about an NHL career. But he had a shoulder injury that would trouble him for the rest of his life, and he had to scale back those ambitions. Regardless, he did play at both Western Michigan and Ryerson University in Toronto, and hockey remained his primary sports passion. But what would distinguish him as a sportscaster was his versatility. He handled basketball, football, and baseball with ease, both back home in Canada and then, of course, with ESPN, where he became a thoroughly familiar face, and a soothing presence at that. John radiated friendliness and comfort on the air, and that’s a gift.
Through it all, he was plagued with self-doubt. He spent years having very mixed feelings about his father, who had been very much a sports mentor but who sadistically ruined just about every good day in John’s athletic life with his mocking comments. That his father turned out to be a Class A adulterer further poisoned John’s thoughts. Combining the paternal beatings, taunting, and behavior, John decided early on that if he were ever to be married, he would absolutely, positively not have children.
Fortunately for John, he did not make good on that promise. I am not indulging in hyperbole when I say that I know no one who loved his children more than John did his daughters, Aleah and Jenna. Of course, it all began with his wife, Wanda, whom John declared at first sight was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Absent his feelings for them, I think we are free to speculate that John may very well have ended his life at some point were he not aware of the devastation it would cause them. He had far less regard for himself. Who knew?
The answer is just about no one outside his family. He was once able to check himself into the Westchester Medical Psychiatric Unit at Mount Sinai while allowing the ESPN people to think his absence had to do with his diabetes.
It’s amazing what he went through. He had a staggering amount of surgeries due to his physical problems. He discovered, much to his surprise, that he was severely diabetic, and I can still see him injecting the insulin prior to a taping. He had a heart attack. The cause of death was a combination of an enlarged heart, complications from diabetes, and dysautonomia, which affects the automatic nervous system that regulates breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate.
So it wasn’t a great surprise when his widow Wanda said at the wake, “At least now John doesn’t have to be in pain anymore.”
I assumed she was talking about his physical state.