As he negotiated a contract extension with ESPN in 2011, the late sports broadcaster John Saunders had a question for one of his bosses: Why didn’t ESPN have someone coaching on-air talent to improve? Saunders’ boss, executive vice president Norby Williamson, had a response for the broadcaster:
Would you do it?
So Saunders, along with then senior coordinating producer for on-air talent development Gerry Matalon, and then senior vice president, talent development and planning, Laurie Orlando, set up a mentoring program that was informally referred to in Bristol as “Sessions with Saunders.” Most of these sessions ran between 90 minutes and two hours, with follow-up texts and phone calls.
“The meetings are pretty much whatever the individual wants to get out of them,” Saunders told SI in April 2014. “But they’ve in most cases progressed into a road map for a fulfilling career. It’s strange because most young sportscasters target ESPN as a career goal, but when they get here, there are so many other goals within the company. So we start with where do you see yourself in five, 10, 20 years? Who are some of the people you look up to? But most importantly, what would make you happy?”
Mentoring was highly important to Saunders but as he guided ESPNers such as Sage Steele and Adnan Virk through the company landscape, what was unknown to most of his colleagues was that Saunders was struggling desperately with depression and considered suicide. The low point for Saunders came in February 2012 when he was driving on the Tappan Zee Bridge, 25 miles north of Manhattan, and a few miles from his home in Westchester County. The broadcaster pulled over and considered jumping off the bridge. He writes about the experience in a thoughtful posthumous memoir, Playing Hurt: My Journey From Despair To Hope.
Best-selling author John U. Bacon and Saunders were working on the book prior to Saunders passing away last August at age 61. Bacon wrote that he continued to work on the manuscript with the help of Saunders’ family, friends and physicians. “But in the end this is John’s story, told from his point of view, based primarily on his recollections,” writes Bacon. The book is due to publish on Aug. 8, 2017. This column was sent an early copy last week by the author.
“On this day I wasn’t driving toward the bridge to go to the mall or to visit [daughter] Jenna in Canada or to admire the Hudson,” Saunders writes. “I wasn’t even planning to drive to the other side. On this particular day I was a beaten man. On top of a life-long battle with depression, I had still not fully recovered from a brain injury I suffered on Sept 10, 2011, on the set of ABC’s College Football…Six months later the lingering effects of the injury were evident whenever I made a mistake during our broadcast by mixing up names or getting the score wrong—the kind of simple errors that guys who’ve been on TV for a few decades aren’t supposed to make. Each time I screwed up something, a few anonymous critics on Twitter would hammer me. That s part of the business of course, but after a few months of this I concluded that the one skill I could always count on, the thing that saved me so many times—my ability to talk on TV—was slipping away from me.
To mitigate my depression I had undergone years of therapy and medication from a better of doctors—some great, some not. But on this morning I woke up as deeply depressed as I’d ever been. That was when I decided to drive to the Tappan Zee Bridge. I told myself I wasn’t going to there to jump off the bridge I was only going to look over the side. When I got to the bridge I drove to the highest point and stopped, just as I planned. Suddenly, there I felt a great urgency. With cars whizzing past and the police sure to show up any minute, I realized if I was going to peer over the edge to see what it looked like, I’d have to do it now.
But after I got out of my car and walked to the side I encountered girders and fences designed to keep people from jumping. I realized that killing myself this way would take more effort than I had anticipated. I made my way through the first layer of obstruction and got close enough to see the river below. Once I finally looked over the edge, I saw a drop of about 140 feet, equivalent to a 14-story skyscraper. The river’s rough gray surface looked more like concrete than water. I stood there motionless, taking it all in. When I realized I could do it, that I could jump from the bridge, I got scared. I turned around, got back in my car, and drove off, heading for home. On my way back I decided that whatever I was going to do, it wasn’t going to be that. But what was I going to do?”
The book serves as a biography of Saunders’ life and professional career—he was born in Ontario and achieved early success as a Canadian sports broadcaster prior to ESPN—as well traces his lifelong struggle with depression. In painstaking terms, Saunders discusses checking into the Westchester Medical Psychiatric Ward at Mt. Sinai Hospital in 2009, all unbeknownst to his ESPN colleagues.
“I consider my bosses at ESPN to be enlightened, caring people,” he writes. “If I told them what I was going through, I’m confident they would have protected my privacy and done everything they could to help me. But I was still too embarrassed to let them know I was dealing with serious depression. So I told my supervisors at ESPN that I was in the hospital for my diabetes, which gave me more incentive to get out soon before I had to blow my cover.”
A few hours after midnight last August 10, Saunders collapsed on his bathroom floor. His death became national news—here’s a piece I wrote on him that day—and Bacon reports in the book that the family decided to have an autopsy performed to counter any erroneous claims of death. Bacon writes that the coroner concluded Saunders died of a combination of an enlarged heart, complications from his diabetes, and dysautonomia, which affects the automated nervous system that regulates breathing blood pressure and heart rate. Saunders asked that his brain be donated to Mt. Sinai for research and his family honored his wishes.
The book Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hopeby John Saunders and John U. Bacon will be published on Aug. 8, 2017 by Da Capo Press.