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Bacon: Saunders realized how much he had to live for

Oct 20, 2017

Since 1986, college football fans looked forward to hearing the beautiful baritone of John Saunders on ESPN and ABC – but not this year.

I met him two decades ago during a charity hockey game at Joe Louis Arena. We dressed next to each other, started talking, and kept it up for a couple decades.

Ten years ago, John told me he wanted to write books. We started exploring a couple ideas, until September 10, 2011, when John stood up too fast on the set, blacked out, and fell backward on the tile floor, right on the back of his head.

Credit John U. Bacon

John went to the hospital for stitches and x-rays. He assumed he’d be released the next day and get back at work, just like always. But he didn’t have a clue. He was not walking out of the woods. He was walking into them.

He had to stay in the hospital for six weeks of grueling therapy just to re-learn how to walk and talk, and read and write.

But six months later, he still had a massive headache, and was making rookie mistakes on TV. He became convinced he was not getting better, and never would. His depression forced him to face his unhappy childhood, which included physical abused by his father, sexual abuse by his older female cousins, and countless concussions.

But with the support of his family, friends and physicians, the fog finally lifted in the spring of 2012. He regained his TV skills, the headache went away, and life was getting better.

And then John suffered a heart attack. Fortunately, he got to the hospital right in the nick time. When he came to, he realized how much he had to live for, and resolved to enjoy his remaining years.

That’s when he asked me to write his memoir, Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope. We worked for three years without a contract because we both believed it could help John, and many others. I learned from John that depression is a disease, but when you get help, it usually works.

John fulfilled his promise to enjoy life more, traveling to Europe with his wife and daughters several times, and playing more golf with his brother. They held a surprise party for John’s 60th birthday, where his family and friends told him how much they loved him.

John got choked up, and said, “I can’t begin to tell you all how much you mean to me. I love you all.”

By last summer, John and I were almost finished with his book. Then, on August 10, John walked into his bathroom, and collapsed on the floor. He died of an enlarged heart.

Condolences came from around the country, including a personal note from President Obama. Now we are left with our private memories, and John’s public legacy.

John had many admirable qualities, including a sharp intelligence, a quick wit, and a great warmth with those lucky enough to get to know him. But I believe he will be remembered mainly for his resilience, his courage, and his generosity, which will live on long after his passing.

To me, John was an alchemist, blessed with the uncommon ability to take the pain the world too often gave him, and transform that into love for his family and friends.

The book is John’s ultimate act of generosity. He bared his soul to give hope to thousands who face the same hardships he did. John wanted to save lives, and he will.

That is no small consolation.

John U. Bacon  views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.