John Saunders’s Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope

Hello, Loyal Readers!

On TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 7, at 7 p.m. at University of Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium, we will launch my next book THE GREAT HALIFAX EXPLOSION: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. The great Cynthia Canty, host of Michigan Radio’s Stateside program, will introduce me. Admission is free, and Literati Bookstore will have hundreds of books available for purchase, and I’ll sign them all, just like last time. More information on the book is below.

Hope to see you there! Tell 100 friends!


You can listen to the commentary here.


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.

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.

  • * * * * *



The most destructive moment of World War I occurred far from the Western Front, in Canada, where an explosion blew a city apart but propelled two nations together. John Bacon, a superbly talented historian and story teller, has rescued from obscurity an astonishing episode of horror and heroism.


-George F. Will, Pulitzer-Prize winning Syndicated Columnist


The Great Halifax Explosion is absorbing from first page to last. With deep research and evocative writing, John U. Bacon has brought back to life this devastating wartime event and illuminated its lasting meaning.

-David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of Once in a Great City


Fans of Ken Burns, Daniel James’ The Boys In The Boat, and John McPhee’s Hiroshima will find in John Bacon’s meticulous reporting a story that literally rocked the world. What Bacon does so humanely, so expertly, and so compellingly is bring this story back from obscurity, into vivid life. Bacon sets the clock in motion, it’s literally ticking as we wait. That is the thrill of this book; to learn to care about these people under Bacon’s expert artistry, and to see this calamitous event rippling through life today. This a story with an enormous heart; this is an author with astounding range as a journalist and page-turning storyteller.

-Doug Stanton, New York Times Bestselling author of The Odyssey of Echo Company


When I first encountered the Halifax Explosion, I knew immediately it was a tick-tock of a story just waiting to become a book. John U. Bacon is clearly the perfect writer for the job, able to keep you awake reading ho­­­urs after your spouse has turned out the lights. In this suspenseful tale of heartbreak and heroism, Bacon deftly recreates a world at war and sheds new light on one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.

-Beth Macy, New York Times Bestselling author of Factory Man and Truevine


John U. Bacon’s The Great Halifax Explosion is the seminal account of one of the bloodiest man-made disasters in world history, which killed some 2,000 people.  This is a riveting, well-written and researched World War I book.  Highly recommended!

Douglas Brinkley, New York Times Bestselling author of Cronkite



A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
Author: John U. Bacon

A history of the destruction of a Canadian city by an explosion as powerful as a nuclear weapon. In 1917, the thriving seaport of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was leveled by a munitions explosion of unprecedented force when two ships collided in the city’s harbor. One carried 2,925 tons of high explosives; 494 steel drums of combustible airplane fuel; 250 tons of TNT, and 2,366 tons of the unstable, poisonous chemical picric acid, even more powerful than TNT. The ship was bound for France via Halifax as part of a convoy, the better to avoid German U-boats, until miscalculations ended in a devastating “awkward, dangerous dance.” Synthesizing locally published sources, a family archive, and World War I histories, Bacon (Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football, 2015, etc.) documents the terrifying incident in vivid detail: events leading up to the ships’ arrival; a capsule history of Halifax and a reprise of the start of World War I; the nail-biting collision; and its gruesome, horrific aftermath. Fires blazed, fueled not only by the explosives, but by overturned stoves and furnaces in homes; shock waves blasted out windows, spewing glass; railroad tracks were thrown up, factories crushed, wooden houses reduced to kindling. A tsunami, created by the air waves, quickly followed. Many who survived the conflagration were caught in the undertow and drowned. The explosion, Bacon writes, “destroyed 6,000 buildings, rendering 25,000 people—almost half the population of Halifax—homeless in one-ear-splitting whoosh” and killed 1,600 instantly. Corpses, many dismembered or burned beyond recognition, were scattered everywhere. Survivors at first assumed that the city had been attacked by Germans; years later, trials revealed the culpability of the ships’ captains. When word spread—by telegram—to other Canadian cities and to Nova Scotia’s American neighbors, help was immediate and generous. Boston, especially well-prepared because of the war, sent doctors, nurses, medical supplies, and many millions of dollars in aid. Since 1976, Boston’s annual Christmas tree has been a gift of thanks from Halifax. An absorbing history of disaster and survival.




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