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My Journey from Despair to Hope
Read by Dion Graham
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During his three decades on ESPN and ABC, John Saunders became one of the nation’s most respected and beloved sportscasters. In this moving, jarring, and ultimately inspiring memoir, Saunders discusses his troubled childhood, the traumatic brain injury he suffered in 2011, and the severe depression that nearly cost him his life. As Saunders writes,
Playing Hurt is not an autobiography of a sports celebrity but a memoir of a man facing his own mental illness, and emerging better off for the effort. I will take you into the heart of my struggle with depression, including insights into some of its causes, its consequences, and its treatments.
I invite you behind the facade of my apparently “perfect” life as a sportscaster, with a wonderful wife and two healthy, happy adult daughters. I have a lot to be thankful for, and I am truly grateful. But none of these things can protect me or anyone else from the disease of depression and its potentially lethal effects.
Mine is a rare story: 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 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.
John Saunders died suddenly on August 10, 2016, from an enlarged heart, diabetes, and other complications. This book is his ultimate act of generosity to help those who suffer from mental illness, and those who love them.
After John Saunders passed away in August of 2016, I continued to work on the manuscript with the help of his family, friends, and physicians. But in the end this is John's story, told from his point of view, based primarily on his recollections. Of course, memories can differ. Also, while the events depicted here are true, some names and identifying details have been changed, and some dialogue has been reconstructed.
John U. Bacon
Looking Over the Edge
It was mid-February 2012, the time of year when we northerners become convinced that winter will never end. For me the winter of 2012 was already the longest of my entire life.
I was driving to the Tappan Zee Bridge, twenty-five miles north of Manhattan. The bridge is just a few miles from our home in Westchester County, where we've lived since 1999.
My wife, Wanda, and I raised our two girls here. Our oldest, Aleah, had just graduated from Fordham University. Her little sister, Jenna, was finishing her freshman year at my alma mater, Ryerson University in Toronto.
Maybe a dozen times a year we take I-87 to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge to visit the Palisades Mall in West Nyack, New York. We also use the bridge on our way to Canada, my "home and native land," as the anthem says. When they built the Tappan Zee in 1955 it was supposed to last about half a century, and it's already surpassed that. Engineers have deemed it one of the most decrepit bridges in the country, and it looks like they constructed it from an erector set. There's nothing pretty about that bridge.
But when you're on it, you have to admire the view. The Hudson River is one of our nation's great jewels, and if you take your eyes off the road long enough to follow the river south, you can see the faint skyline of New York City on the horizon.
But on this day I wasn't driving toward the bridge to go to the mall or visit Jenna in Canada or admire the Hudson. I wasn't even planning to drive to the other side.
On this particular day I was a beaten man. On top of a lifelong battle with depression, I had still not fully recovered from a brain injury I'd suffered on September 10, 2011, on the set of ABC College Football. After a break in the Alabama–Penn State game, I stood up too fast, blacked out, and fell backward onto the tile floor, with my head taking the impact. I endured six months of grueling therapy just to relearn how to walk and talk and read and write.
Six months later the lingering effects of the injury were evident whenever I made a mistake during our broadcasts 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 something up, 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 had 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 battery 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 there to jump off the bridge. I was only going to take a look over the side. When I got to the bridge I drove to the highest point and stopped, just as I'd planned. Suddenly I felt a great urgency. With cars whizzing past and the police sure to show up at 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 obstructions 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 fourteen-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?
This decade two active professional athletes have announced that they were gay. This was a first for the NBA, the NFL, or any major American professional league. Commentators frequently declared that those announcements broke the last taboo in the macho culture of American sports.
But there remains another: the taboo that tells men they must never confess that they suffer from mental illness, which is why men are far less likely to seek help than women.
In this book I openly discuss my lifelong battle with depression and how it nearly cost me my life. Playing Hurt is not an autobiography of a sports celebrity but a memoir of a man facing his own mental illness, and emerging better off for the effort. I will take you into the heart of my struggle with depression, including insights into some of its causes, its consequences, and its treatments.
My story unfolds like most of our lives do, among family, friends, and colleagues. But I will also take you places we don't usually visit: the therapists' offices, the hospitals, and the psychiatric wards where the real work of recovery is performed.
I invite you behind the façade of my apparently "perfect" life as a sportscaster, with a wonderful wife and two healthy, happy adult daughters. I have a lot to be thankful for. Trust me, I know it, and I am truly grateful. But as my trip to the Tappan Zee Bridge shows, none of those things can protect me or anyone else from the disease of depression and its potentially lethal effects.
People only see what's on the outside. When you're depressed, as Robin Williams was, the pain and darkness you feel on the inside can eclipse everything you have going for you on the outside. When Williams ended his own life, everyone asked, "How could he do that? He had so much to live for!" But given the pain he must have been experiencing, instead they should have asked, "How did he manage to live that long?"
Mine is a rare story: 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 to conceal my private life from the public.
So why write a book now, one that will compromise the very privacy I've worked so hard to protect?
Because, once and for all, 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.
Any doubts I had were erased in the spring of 2013, a little more than a year after I considered jumping off the Tappan Zee Bridge. That spring I boarded a train to attend the first National Conference on Mental Health, hosted by President Barack Obama. At the conference I was joined by celebrities, politicians, and others who have dedicated themselves to the cause of mental health. I met a lot of remarkable people who had suffered from mental illness and had the courage to talk about it.
When I got home that night I eagerly told my wife and daughters about my big day. After our girls went up to bed I sat alone at the kitchen table. As the warm glow from the day's events began to cool, I thought about what I was hiding, and I felt like such a hypocrite.
Why didn't I have the guts to tell the truth about my own life?
With each minute that ticked by, my shame grew. I realized I needed to come clean.
So I'm going to tell you now.
Growing Up the Hard Way
An Oasis of Love
MY FATHER, BERNIE SAUNDERS, WAS A GIFTED ATHLETE, a serious baseball player, and a semi-pro football player before becoming a handyman and an aspiring entrepreneur. He was also good enough at the bass fiddle to play in a jazz orchestra and a jazz trio.
My parents met through family members and hit it off right away. My mother was a beautiful jazz singer. Occasionally they played gigs together, and before long they decided to get married.
They knew they wanted to have a family and started right away. My father wanted to name their first baby for his best friend, Oscar Peterson, one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. But my mother didn't like the name Oscar, so when I was born on February 2, 1955, they compromised and named me John Peterson Saunders. They also asked Oscar Peterson to be my godfather, which is pretty neat. I called him "Uncle Oscar," and he was very good to me.
My parents' love for music filled our home. My father was always playing his 78 rpm records and reel-to-reel tapes in the house. My mother serenaded us with Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald classics. Almost every chore or lesson was done to music, and many of my earliest memories involve their favorite songs.
For the first ten years of my life my family moved back and forth between Toronto and Montreal. My brother, Bernie, was born a year and a half after I was, and our sister, Gail, came along three years after Bernie, in 1959. My mom smoked and drank during her pregnancies, which was not unusual back then, but perhaps as a result I developed asthma at a young age, and Gail was born two months early.
When we brought Gail home from the hospital my mom held her over her shoulder in the passenger seat. (There were no infant car seats in 1959.) I was four, Bernie was three, and we were sitting behind Gail, kissing her tiny hands and smelling her. We were both completely smitten from the start.
Our mom warned us, "Oh you, you love her now, but wait until she starts getting into your stuff!"
"She can do whatever she wants!" I said, and I meant it.
Sure, there were times when Gail could be a pain in the neck, like any little sister, but the three of us were incredibly close.
The following year, when I started kindergarten, I walked the four or five blocks to school by myself, which was also pretty common. I remember being so happy to be starting school! I liked the teachers, I liked my classmates, I liked the structure, and I liked learning. As soon as I learned to read, I always had my nose in a book.
But most of my early memories aren't happy ones.
A few weeks into first grade I went to the kitchen for breakfast, still fired up about going to school, and sat down across from my father. At the time my dad was still my hero and the toughest guy I knew.
But now I saw him sitting at the kitchen table, his head in his hands, quietly weeping. I had never seen him cry before. This was stunning to me. I thought my dad was Superman, and Superman never cried.
I asked him, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Get out of here."
"Why are you crying, Daddy? Are you okay?"
He raised his voice. "I told you! Nothing!"
My mom overheard him and came rushing into the kitchen, crying and screaming that Dad didn't care about his family, he only cared about himself, and that he was going to leave us to live with his mistress.
She said, "He's been screwing a woman at work."
I had no idea what that meant. I wasn't even sure what my father did for a living, though we later learned he'd been the manager of a car wash.
Dad just took it, hanging his head, while mom kept yelling. I burst from the kitchen and hid in my room, hoping the shouting would stop.
The Cleavers we weren't.
Both our parents believed in corporal punishment, which was pretty common then too, but they also practiced "corporal problem solving." A slap to the side of the head was an easier way to stress the urgency of a simple task—such as fetching their cigarettes or grabbing their drinks—than asking nicely.
One day, when I was five or six, I was snooping around in my parents' bedroom, the way kids do. When my mom caught me I gave her some backtalk, which was never smart. When she reached for a belt, I ran out of the house.
I was running so hard that I had an asthma attack. When she caught up to me I was bent over but managed to gasp, "Look at what you made me do!"
"Oh yeah?" she said. "I'm going to whoop that asthma out of you!"
She started whipping me with the belt, wherever she could land it. Now, when parents spanked their kids in the sixties, no one gave it a second thought. But this beating was bad enough that even the neighbors came out of their houses to watch.
This incident aside, it was more common for Mom to discipline Bernie and Dad to discipline me. With Bernie, Mom would occasionally take off her belt and use it on his backside—sometimes with the buckle—which occasionally caused him some embarrassment the next day in gym class when his friends could see the marks she left. Mom believed that if you spared the rod, you spoiled the child.
Our dad picked on me the most, perhaps because I was the oldest and had the biggest mouth. Oh, and I got in trouble the most, too. My brother almost never talked back or got in trouble, so he was rarely the target of my father's rage.
Sometimes Dad would order me to strip to my underwear and then whip my backside with a leather belt. But that was better than being forced into a tiny broom closet and then left there sitting in the dark to think about what I'd done. Huddled in that closet, my chin resting on my knees, I would repeat to myself: You deserved it. By the time my father finally let me out I had convinced myself that I did deserve it. I figured my dad had to come down so hard on me because I was manufactured wrong. It wasn't his fault, I decided—it was mine.
If I was stupid enough to mouth off—and I was, many times—his fists proved the most convenient weapon. But even when I knew I had it coming, I refused to give him the satisfaction of crying, stubbornly keeping a stiff upper lip. This allowed me to emerge from his beatings with a shred of dignity, which was essential for surviving those years. But over time that ingrained the habit of self-denial, of never admitting when I was hurting, and that would have serious side effects years later.
Despite scenes like that, what's amazing is that I still thought we had a great family. Kids have a remarkable ability to block out the bad stuff and focus on the good stuff. They can also learn to blame themselves instead of their parents for whatever's wrong.
Taking the blame for our problems allowed me to believe my family was stable, even normal. Better to think I was the problem than my family was. I often bragged to my friends how great my family was, probably trying to convince myself as much as them. But scenes like the ones above made me wonder sometimes if our parents were not quite as perfect as I'd thought.
I always had allies, lots of them, starting with my brother and sister. And I'd accumulate more over the years: teachers, coaches, and, always, plenty of friends—good friends. But my first and most important supporter was my mother's mother, whom we called Nanny. Her father was half-Cree, half-black. The rest of her family made it to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Nanny and Grandpa lived in a neat, big home in Scarborough, a nice suburb just outside Toronto.
Nanny's presence in my life was a true blessing. In a childhood filled with uncertainty and fear, she provided security and lots of love. When I was with her I had no doubt that I was loved, I had nothing to be afraid of, and the only thing I had to do was be myself. Nanny and our Grandpa, a warm and funny guy, made our trips to their home special.
I always thought Nanny's soft, comforting voice was like an angel's and that she was the best cook to walk the face of the earth. Her Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts were legendary: turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese—I can taste them even now.
I don't know what Nanny thought of her oldest daughter, my mother. To this day I really have no idea why my Nanny and my mom were so different. But I do recall thinking that Nanny must have been aware of the differences between her immediate family and ours.
When I was around five I was riding in Nanny's car when she accidentally turned the wrong way down a one-way street.
"Darn!" she said as she pulled over.
I corrected her. "You 'appose to say shit. Daddy always says shit."
"Oh, dear! You shouldn't say that!" But she couldn't stifle her laughter.
Nanny's shining spirit cut through a dark world. Even her smallest gestures—putting a hand on my shoulder, inviting me to sit on her lap—showed her love for me and made me feel so good.
Nanny was dignified, graceful, and elegant. She kept her long hair pinned in a bun. I often begged her to let it down so I could stand behind her on the couch for what seemed like hours, brushing her shiny hair, which was jet black with silver threads. While I ran the brush slowly through her hair she'd ask me how I was doing in school, who my friends were, and what I liked to do. I soaked up the attention, which was incredible therapy for me. I felt so calm, so safe, so loved. It's a real blessing to think someone cares about you more than anyone else in the world. Nanny made me feel like I was somebody, so when I was with her, I dared to think maybe I wasn't such a bad kid, after all.
I loved to read, and Nanny often asked me to read to her. She liked to teach me her favorite passages in the Bible. Other times I'd just pick up a magazine and start reading out loud, just to show her how much I was learning. She'd brag about me to my father.
"Bernie, you should be so proud of this boy! He's so smart!"
If my father was in a good mood, he might mention how many hits I'd had in my last baseball game. Sports were his main vehicle for praising Bernie and me.
Once, when I was seven, I was playing with Nanny when my father told me to go to the store to fetch him a pack of cigarettes. (Again, not uncommon in 1962.) When I reluctantly peeled away from Nanny my father became irritated with my dawdling and raised his voice.
"I told you to go to the store, and I told you to go now! Get going, before I—"
"Before you do what?" Nanny snapped. In an instant her soft, beautiful brown eyes turned hard as diamonds. "If you lay one hand on that boy, you'll have to take me on next."
I'd never seen anyone challenge my father like that. I had no idea Nanny could be so strong. I was impressed, but also afraid. I knew what my father was capable of, so I was worried he might haul off and hit Nanny. But even if he didn't, I knew I'd pay the price later.
He stared at her for a moment, then dropped it. I knew worse could be coming for me after Nanny was gone, but for a brief moment I savored my first victory over my father, even by proxy.
My grandpa was a small, wiry man, maybe five-foot-six, with an infectious laugh. Even in Canada, where racism was much less rampant than in the States, he had endured a lot of humiliation in his job as a railroad porter, yet he always seemed to shrug off the slights and kept a positive attitude.
After thirty years he retired from the railroad and took a job as a skycap at Toronto's airport. I'd like to imagine this little guy manhandling those huge bags. They said he also had a way of making his customers smile, and he cherished every dime tip he received.
From my grandparents I learned how to treat people with consideration and respect. They constantly reiterated their fundamental values: "Don't ever lose sight of your principles," and "Don't let anyone step on you." Coming from two people who'd experienced untold offenses while keeping their self-respect firmly intact, this carried a lot of weight.
I loved going to their home so much that I often fantasized about living with them.
An Indecent Proposal
COMPARED TO NANNY AND GRANDPA'S HOME, OURS often seemed strange and scary. On the rare occasions when all of us were there at one time, we had no center, no gravitational force pulling us all together. The Hallmark card photo of five family members sitting around the table for dinner or watching a game or a movie together simply didn't exist for us.
To be fair, part of this was the era. Kids were on their own a lot more in the sixties than they are now, so we made our own fun.
Bernie and I protected Gail, but if she wanted to play with us, she had to learn to play our way. When Bernie and I were playing hockey in the basement Gail and our cousin Loretta would beg to join in. We compromised by having Loretta stand in one spot and Gail six feet to her left. We'd say, "Don't move," and they became the goalposts.
Occasionally we'd fire a puck off one of the girls' shins, which would start the play-by-play: "Saunders with the shot… ohhhh, and it hits the goalpost!" Bernie believes that was my first play-by-play, so I owe Gail for that too! Gail and Loretta never flinched because they didn't want to be sent away. Playing together was enough to keep all of us happy.
One of my father's friends, whom I'll call Pete Doby, had a half-dozen children. When we started visiting their spacious home in Toronto, Bernie and I were babies, and two of Doby's daughters, whom I'll call Laura and Carol, might have been ten and nine. During a visit about seven years later Laura and Carol asked me, Bernie, and two other boys if we wanted to see something. I was hoping she had some toys or candy, so I said, "Sure." While the other boys followed Carol, I tagged along with Laura downstairs to the guest bedroom in the basement.
She closed the door behind me and unfastened her blouse and bra. "Get on top of me," she said.
Laura asked me to stroke her breasts and kiss them. I did it, partly out of curiosity, partly out of pleasure, and partly out of fear. Each time I visited she would take me down to the guest bedroom for more, while the other boys would go with Carol or come with me. These encounters were mysterious, exciting, and troubling all at once. They left me feeling very confused and unsettled, but I certainly didn't think of it as abuse.
After each encounter Laura admonished me, "You can't tell anyone. If you do, I'll be sent away." I didn't dare say a peep.
One night she whispered, "Come into the bathroom with me."
When I walked in I saw that she had left the lights off. I stumbled into the room, blindly feeling along the walls. When I reached her she took my hand and guided it beneath her skirt, then inside her panties. To my childish mind, it felt like a netting of some kind, hot and moist.
"Take your pants off," she said. Her hands were all over me, touching my genitals. I achieved an erection, but that just confused me more. Laura made me put my fingers into her vagina until she had what I now know was an orgasm.
These occasional encounters continued for almost three years, only stopping when my father moved us to Montreal for a new job. I had never heard of women molesting boys, so I dismissed these memories as just another part of my strange childhood. But the effects of those too-early sexual encounters would stay with me the rest of my life, affecting my feelings about sex and my relationships with women long into adulthood.
Moving to Montreal, however, also cost me many visits to my grandparents. When my family left Ontario for Quebec, I lost Nanny—my protector, my shoulder to cry on, and the first person I felt gave me unconditional love. If my grandparents had been with me throughout my childhood, I might have made better choices and far fewer mistakes.
Playing with Fire
WHEN WE MOVED TO MONTREAL WE SETTLED IN A working-class, bilingual suburb called Chateauguay (pronounced SHAT-a-gay) about fifteen miles from the city. Dad told us his new job was going to pay a lot more and would change our lives forever.
We moved into a split-level, four-bedroom bungalow across the street from a dairy farm. Coming from our cramped quarters in Toronto, it was a welcome change. We lived in a great neighborhood, surrounded by a lot of kids our age. We played sports every hour we could, but our two favorites were hockey and baseball.
Our father's father, a Jamaican immigrant, was a tall, athletic man. My father and his four brothers all played football and boxed. Uncle Danny had been Canada's amateur middleweight champion, and my father had been a star running-back for a minor league affiliate of the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football League. It seemed like Dad could jump over any hurdle and could run backward faster than anyone in our neighborhood could run forward. When you're a kid, that's the stuff of legends.
My dad really liked coaching our baseball and football teams, and it showed. He knew his stuff, he took it seriously, and he was the kind of guy all the neighborhood kids loved. But he had a knack for knocking me down at my best moments.
When I was ten or eleven our town built a couple of Little League ballparks. We had a game there when everything was finished except the outfield fence. They had laid down the gravel warning track and built the fence frame, but they hadn't put up the plywood boards yet.
- "A story that merits both sympathy and attention."—Kirkus Reviews
"An inspiring call to action about mental illness."
"For sports fans and anyone who has struggled with depression."
"The book...isn't a puffy portrait of the long-time fixture on ABC's college football coverage and 'The Sports Reporters'-though it's true Saunders was one of the most-liked sportscasters on ESPN through his career. This book explores Saunders' off-camera struggles, which included the events surrounding his life-long battle with depression...Readers will learn so many things about Saunders they would have never expected to hear-and they will also gain a better understanding of the day-to-day lives of people with depression. Saunders proves it's not what you think."
"In this book, Saunders gives an astoundingly honest account of his lifelong struggle with depression...Playing Hurt makes it clear that depression doesn't care who you are. It doesn't care about your race, gender, age, family background, professional success, or anything else like that. This book also does an amazing job of saying to readers who suffer from this illness, "You are not alone," which is a message that can never be stated often enough...The honesty of this book, especially for such a public figure (who assumed he'd be alive when it was eventually published), is breathtaking...Playing Hurt is a gripping story, it is an emotional story, and above all else, it is an important story. It is not hyperbole to say that this book will save lives. It is a must-read."
—Clearing Out the Clutter
- "[A] moving chronicle of [Saunders'] struggle...Readers will ache for him as he struggles to overcome brain trauma while still battling depression. This is a tough read; there's a lot of pain on the pages. But, as Saunders promised in his preface, there's a kind of hope as well."—Booklist
- "This is an important book. Parts will leave you shaken, others will inform you, still others will uplift you. Playing Hurt is the final act of grace in John's remarkable life, so we may learn of the toll of depression, the need for diagnosis and treatment, and the hope that awaits."—Bob Ley, host of ESPN's Outside the Lines, winner of 11 Emmy Awards
- "For 30 years, my friend John Saunders earned my admiration for his understated demeanor, his top-of-the-line professionalism, his Old World ways, and his gentle yet warm smile and laughter. I'm sure those who never met him except through TV felt the exact same way. After reading Playing Hurt, my respect for him has increased exponentially. So will yours. Thank you, John."—Chris Berman, legendary ESPN broadcaster
"Playing Hurt is John Saunders's personal, poignant story of how he responded to childhood traumas, abuse, clinical depression, an array of head traumas, sports injuries, suicidal thoughts, and excessive use of prescribed medications throughout his life. His hard-learned message: when depression strikes, it is a sign of real strength to talk and turn to family, friends, and experts."
—John F. Greden, MD, Founding Chair, National Network of Depression Centers (NNDC)
"Playing Hurt is a public service. Here is a trusted friend, a man who has spent so many hours in our living rooms, providing an education about brain injury, about depression, and the symbiosis between the two. Knowing he died so soon after he emerged from this fog is heartbreaking. Playing Hurt is a testament to John and the hidden struggles he overcame."
—Ivan Maisel, ESPN.com, six-time winner Best Writing, Football Writers Association
- "This book underscores the difficulty and significance of acknowledging depression, as well as understanding that this is not unlike any other serious and chronic illness. Then, as Saunders learns, with the assistance of skilled porfessionals and loving, caring, and supportive family and friends, it can be diagnoses, treated, and managed."—Elissa P. Benedek, past President, American Psychiatric Association
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2017
- Hachette Audio