John Saunders “Playing Hurt”: excerpts, interviews, and more

Hello, Loyal Readers, from outside Gate A27 at Newark International Airport. This is how I’m rollin’ these days.

Just finished a full week of interviews for the book I coauthored with my good friend John Saunders, “Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope.” It debuted Tuesday to very good reviews and sales, and naturally John’s family and I are hoping his message continues to get out.

To those ends, here are a few things you might enjoy: Two excerpts, a few interviews, some reviews, and a story.

The book is on sale now at just about every place that sells books: independents like Literati, Nicola’s, and Schuler’s, chains like Barnes & Nobles, and of course Amazon.



Interview and excerpt with NPR’s Here & Now:

My father’s death didn’t affect me the way I thought it might. I didn’t feel relief or sadness or even happiness. I felt nothing. Not numbness, but simply nothing at all. But in hindsight I might have been fooling myself, ignoring the pain his death really caused me. Our last chance to make things right had passed, forever, which might have affected me far more than I let on to anyone, including myself.

I continued to blame myself for our dysfunctional relationship—and the one man who might have convinced me otherwise was now gone. As my depression deepened, my long-dormant impulse to cut or burn myself resurfaced. Freud used to say depression was anger turned inward against yourself, and my response to my dad’s death might have been proof.

I also had suicidal thoughts pop up again while I was driving. I could hit a tree or a lamp, I thought, or drown myself in a roadside lake, and that would be it. What made things progressively worse was that I wasn’t doing anything to address these issues: no therapy, no medication, no acknowledgment that I was doing anything but gliding along, leading a perfect life.

By December of 2009, a few weeks before Christmas, my façade finally cracked under its own weight. I went to see our family doctor, Dr. Michael Gerdis, for a checkup. He’d known me for almost two decades, so as soon as he saw me he didn’t need medical tests to know something was off.

“John, you don’t look right.”

I didn’t pull any punches. “To be honest,” I said, “I’m feeling kinda down.”

“In what way?”

I thought about it for a moment, then decided to tell the truth. “I really don’t feel like going on.” Even I was a bit surprised to hear those words come out of my mouth.

He looked at me carefully. “You realize that when you say that, I should send you directly to the hospital.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“You promise me you’re fine?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m fine.”

He wasn’t satisfied. He left the room and returned with a slip of paper. “I can tell something isn’t right, so I want you to visit this place, Westchester Medical Center, that has a psychiatric unit. Promise me you’ll go.”

I promised I would. As soon as I left his office I went directly to the WMC, met with a social worker, and told her the same thing: “I don’t feel like going on anymore.”

I wasn’t saying I wanted to kill myself. I was saying I was worn out. I didn’t want to keep doing this: waking up every day, already tired, constantly struggling to keep going, with little hope I’d ever get much better. It was exhausting, with no end in sight.

Hearing me say this, she summoned a psychiatrist, who asked me a lot of the same questions. Then he asked a new one: “Do you feel like you’re a threat to yourself?”


“But you’ve just told two professionals that you don’t feel like going on.”

“I just don’t feel like doing this anymore,” I repeated. “I’m tired of this.”

While the doctors stepped outside to consult with each other, Wanda arrived to see me. We sat by ourselves for about an hour, not only talking about why I felt so sad but also discussing the normal husband and wife subjects: the kids, their school, all their activities.

Like many spouses of depressed people, for years Wanda had understandably tried to fix my problems with many approaches, including cheerleading: “Go out and tell yourself today is going to be a good day!” or “Think of all of the wonderful things you have to be thankful for!” She had all the best intentions, of course, but with depressed people this approach rarely helps, and sometimes it can magnify the problem. Not only do you still feel horrible, but you also feel guilty about feeling horrible. You think, “It sounds so easy. Why can’t I do it?” When Wanda realized that didn’t work, she learned to ask what I wanted, which was usually not much more than to be listened to or held. She is great at both.

When the psychiatrist came back he said, “I want you to go to the Westchester Medical Psychiatric Ward at Mt. Sinai and check in.”

“Why?” I asked.

“We want to have you under observation for a while.”

“Why?” I asked again. I wasn’t going without a fight. “I feel fine.”

With that, the psychiatrist turned a little tough. “John, all I need is two doctors’ signatures to have you admitted: mine, and the admitting physician’s. If we do that, then you’re committed, and you can’t be released without my say-so. Or you can admit yourself and sign yourself out whenever you like. So you have a choice: I can admit you, or you can do it.”

You might think, given those choices, that I’d jump at the latter and admit myself. But I wasn’t so sure. I sat in silence for a while, wondering if perhaps it might be best to have the doctor admit me so I couldn’t sign myself out until they thought I was no longer a danger to myself.

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. Magazine

By the spring of 2012, I had still not fully recovered from a brain injury I’d suffered on September 10, 2011, on the set of ABC College Football. I had stood up too quickly, blacked out, and fell backward on the tile floor, then spent six months of grueling therapy re-learning how to walk and talk, and read and write. But I was still making rookie mistakes on TV, and getting hammered on Twitter for it. The one skill I could always count on was slipping away.

Finally, I put together a clean performance just in time for the biggest test of the year: basketball’s Championship Week, which is like air traffic control on speed. I still wasn’t operating at full capacity, but if I could do this, I could do just about anything ESPN asked of me. And if I couldn’t, I’d spend all summer wondering if I’d ever be whole again.

My neuropsychiatrist advised me to ask one person I really trusted to evaluate me each day, so I asked producer Rob Lemley. After the first day, he said, “You’re still not quite yourself, but today was a good start.”

The next day he said, “Let me call you later.”

Crap. “No,” I said, “you have to tell me now.”

He paused, because he had to be careful, but he also had to tell me the truth.

“You were very hesitant,” he finally said. “And when you were doing highlights, you sounded like you were reading them. That’s not the John Saunders who can make it sound like you’re ad-libbing as the clip rolls out.”

I had actually been more concerned about my interaction with our analyst, Adrian Branch.

“Oh no,” Lem assured me, “you were dead-on with that.”

I thought I could fix my work with the clips pretty easily. By the end of the week, Lem said I was doing those as well as I ever had.

But on the third day we covered a double-header, with an hour gap between games. We had a new producer, too, so I told him: “Do not take for granted, for one second, that I will remember anything you’ve told me – even if you told me five seconds ago. Do not take for granted that I know where we’re going. If you want to stay in my ear the entire time to make sure I get it right, you go right ahead.”

He’d probably never heard that from any of the pros at ESPN! He stared at me, then nodded, “Okay.”

Bill Graff, the old pro, was up in the booth. If I screwed up, he’d let me know. The stage was set for a great success, or a big, public face-plant.

Everything went fine until that hour-long gap, when the new producer got in my ear to tell me, “Talk about Kendall Marshall.” I went blank. Nothing. The producer repeated, “Kendall Marshall!” But that’s not the part I’d forgotten!

Now what? Try to guess, get Marshall’s position and team wrong, and get hammered on Twitter? Or just stare at the camera like an idiot – which would be even worse? Whatever I was going to do, I had to do that second.

I pulled something out of my ass. I started discussing the Big 12 tournament, for no reason, while the producer kept saying, “Kendall Marshall!” He was not used to working with rookies, which is about where I was. He finally put up a graphic of Kendall Marshall – and it came to me in a flash. I asked Adrian Branch to talk about “that fine point guard from North Carolina, Kendall Marshall!”

No one watching probably had any idea, and we sailed right through the rest. Afterward, Bill Graff came down to talk to me. “John, I knew you were lost, but I doubt anyone else would.”

He was telling me the truth, and that meant everything to me.

“Bill, I’m working at about 50-percent brain capacity.”

What he said next, I will never forget.

“John, I’d take you at fifty-percent, any day of the week.”

During my long recovery, Championship Week was some of the best medicine I ever received. By the end of that weekend, I knew two things: I could do my job, and I could enjoy it, too.


Excerpted from Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope by John Saunders and John U. Bacon. Copyright ©2017. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.




Good Morning America, Tuesday


ESPN Mike & Mike, Thursday


ESPN SportsCenter at 10:30 a.m. Thursday


ESPN SportsCenter at 7 p.m., Thursday



Sporting News, Bill Bender


Story: The Ann Arbor News



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