Bacon’s latest book is out and as you well know he’s mandatory reading around here. This one is a very personal memoir he did with John Saunders, the well-known ESPN personality, on Saunders’ lifelong battle with depression. The childhood victim of all kinds of abuse, Saunders tough-guy’d for a quarter century before the interior damage nearly brought down the whole giant man. As an adult he finally decided to face those demons. But when you’re carrying that kind of devil, it never goes without a fight.
Chapter 26: Falling Backward
Saturday, September 10, 2011, was a beautiful fall day.
A car picked me up at my home for the drive to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT. When I joined the network in 1986, the entire ESPN “empire” consisted of a single building that could house all one hundred or so employees. That was all we needed to produce SportsCenter, NHL, and CFL games – which is all we had. Today, ESPN has deals with Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NFL, more than 5,000 employees, and offices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Hong Kong, Toronto, and South America, not to mention the sprawling campus in Bristol, which now looks more like a modern college campus than a TV network.
I was entering my 35th season in broadcasting, my 25th at ESPN, my 20th hosting ABC College Football, and my 10th season hosting “The Sports Reporters,” which might be my favorite show. It’s a good job. Scratch that. It’s a dream job.
Our oldest daughter Aleah had just graduated from Fordham University a few months earlier, and was considering law school. Our younger daughter Jenna had just enrolled at my alma mater, Ryerson University in Toronto. By any objective measure, I had a pretty good life – particularly for a guy who was raised by an abusive, deadbeat dad.
But I was just minutes away from almost losing it all.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the excerpt]
I walked into our studio, went to make-up, then finished my preparation for the 3 p.m. show, which was a summary of the entire day in college football. We would start by reviewing all the early games when they hit half-time, then preview the handful of regional games that ABC would be covering at 3:30, then preview the best prime-time games. If all went according to plan, we’d be done by seven, which would make it the easiest game day of the season.
When ABC kicked off the 3:30 games, we left the desk and walked across the studio to sit down in front of a bank of TVs to watch all the games. Our researchers stood nearby working their tails off, furiously writing down the stats and highlights coming in. While Jesse and I sat there, waiting to get back on the air at half-time, Lem started preparing a batting order for the rundown, but we knew that could change a half-dozen times in the 90 minutes it took to play half a game of football.
Normally, when there are a few minutes to go in whatever game is getting to half-time fastest, we walk back to the set, where we work live on for about 15 minutes, with three commercial breaks, then go back to the bank of TVs, wait for the games to end, then do the postgame wrap-ups.
On this day, however, I looked at the lower right corner of the Alabama-Penn State game and saw that there was a little over a minute left in the half. Then I stood up to walk to the set.
And that’s the last thing I remember.
The next thing I knew, I was on my back on the floor, looking up at Jesse Palmer. Apparently, after I stood up, I blacked out, then fell backward, onto floor. I’m 6-1, and 225 pounds, so falling like that with nothing to cushion the blow creates a lot of trauma when your head smacks against the hard tile floor. Jesse later told me I was out for about a minute.
When I came to, I saw Jesse kneeling next to me, urging me: “Stay down. Stay down!”
Being a hockey guy, I said, “No, I gotta get up to do half-time!” As has been documented, we are tougher than we are smart.
Jesse convinced me otherwise, but I kept pleading with him to at least let me sit up, and he eventually relented. He put his hand behind my head to help me up, but when I sat up, a stream of blood shot out from the back of my head through Jesse’s fingers. I didn’t know what was happening, but I could see Jesse’s eyes grow big. Whatever it was, it was worse than I thought. A beat later, my head started throbbing like never before.
Despite all this, I actually thought I could still do the half-time show − until my colleagues gently suggested that perhaps blood shooting out of the anchor’s head on national TV might not make for the most professional broadcast. Once I heard the cut-in announcer, Robert Flores, taking over the half-time show without Jesse or me, I knew I was done for the day.
When the paramedics showed up, they checked my blood sugar, which was fine, so my diabetes probably hadn’t caused my blackout. Then they whisked me off to Bristol General Hospital. I was still thinking this would be a simple matter of getting checked out, maybe stitched up, then off to the Bristol Residence Inn, where I’d stay overnight and host “The Sports Reporters” the next morning. But that’s not how it went.
In the emergency room, they staple my head shut, which wasn’t too much fun. I still prefer stitches. My head was pounding so badly I had blurred vision and couldn’t tolerate light, so they gave me a little morphine. It kicked in quickly, so I was pretty upbeat, and figured I’d be getting out soon.
Aleah was at home, but Wanda was in Toronto helping Jenna move into Ryerson University. Bernie happened to be there on vacation, so they all went out for dinner that night. I didn’t know that one of my best friends at ESPN, a senior producer named Gerry Matalon, had called Wanda on her cell to give her update. The problem was, he thought she already knew, so he started by telling her, “I’m on my way to see John in the hospital.”
Wanda is pretty hard to rattle, but that still scared her. When Gerry backed up and explained the situation, she calmed down and called me, and told me she’d fly back that instant. But this was September 10, 2011. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 was the next day, and I didn’t want any of my girls flying anywhere. Besides, I thought the worst was behind me. There was no reason to do anything rash, so I told her not to worry about it. I’d be fine.
After they put me in the Intensive Care Unit, Jesse Palmer, Rob Lemley, and Bill Graff, the man in charge of the studio for college sports, and another good friend, showed up to see me.
The 7:30 p.m. Notre Dame-Michigan game had just started, so we decided to turn it on. To our amusement, we couldn’t get ESPN in Bristol – maybe the only place in America you couldn’t! Hell, if we had just opened the window we probably could have heard it coming out of the studios. We had to laugh at that. Nothing seemed too serious at this stage.
So I opened up my iPad, and the four of us gathered around my bed to watch it on the WatchESPN app. At half-time, the nurses moved me from the ICU to a hospital room, a good sign. My friends followed, so we could watch Michigan start the fourth quarter down 24-7, and come back to win 35-31 in the final seconds. After the thrilling finish, my friends went home, and everything seemed okay. I assumed I’d be released the next day, shake off the headache, and get back at work, just like always.
But I didn’t have a clue. I was not walking out of the woods. I was walking into them – as deeply as I ever had in my life.
I would endure six months of grueling therapy just to re-learn how to walk and talk, and read and write. But 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, I’d get hammered by a few anonymous critics on Twitter. That’s part of the business, of course, but after a few months of this, I concluded that the one skill 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 one morning, I woke up as deeply depressed as I’d ever been. That was when I decided to drive to the Tappan Zee Bridge.
[Excerpted from Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope by John Saunders with John U. Bacon. Copyright ©2017. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.]