‘Playing Hurt’ excerpt: John Saunders survived with dual personality

By John Saunders with John U. Bacon
John Saunders

The following is excerpted from “Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope,” a New York Times sports bestseller, by John Saunders with John U. Bacon.

Bacon, a former Detroit News sports reporter, will be speaking on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor.

By the time I reached my teens, I had become pretty skilled at living this double life. At school, in church, and in front of adults, I almost always did the right thing, and seemed confident, stable, and reliable. In private, I was pretty much the opposite. This dual personality helped me survive some rough years, but it came with a price.

With each passing year, my counter-culture habits took deeper root. With our visits to our grandparents increasingly rare, and our father spending more time in Ohio, I was free to indulge my growing interest in music. I graduated from the Monkees to psychedelic bands like Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, and my favorite, Jimi Hendrix. I even wore a headband like Jimi’s.

In that era, a passion for “Purple Haze” often meant embracing the drug culture, too. My friends had older siblings who talked constantly about the joys of marijuana, and often offered me drugs, but I didn't indulge for one reason: I shared my father’s belief that I had a future as an athlete.

After we moved away from my grandparents, my favorite sanctuaries were hockey rinks, baseball parks, and football fields. At its best, sports can provide a rational and sane universe. Do wrong, get punished. Do right, get rewarded. The scoreboard is blind to race, religion, and everything else but your performance. Sports also offered my best chance to get my dad’s approval, but even when I didn’t, I seemed to get everyone else’s.

Hockey has always been my favorite sport, as it is for most Canadians, but especially because my father knew nothing about it. He couldn't coach me, so he couldn’t correct my every mistake, the way he would driving home from baseball or football games. All he knew was that I was usually the best player on the ice, and there was currency in that.

I remember one game, when I was 13, when I started with the puck behind our net, then faked my way through the entire opposing team, and finished with a move that left their goaltender floundering, then tossed the puck into the net. On the bench, one of my teammates asked, "How did you do that?"

I thought for a few seconds, and then said, "I don't know." It just came to me naturally.

Even when Dad acted unimpressed with my performance, if I scored a hat trick, those small triumphs temporarily blocked his ability to put me down. And if he didn’t always reward me for my success, others would.

When Bernie and I were on the same Pee Wee all-star team, we played in a big tournament in Hull, Quebec. There must have been 5,000 or so people packing the stands. When I skated around the ice for warm-ups, the place felt like another world. I played great that weekend. By the end of the tournament, it seemed like everyone was cheering for me. When people think you’re special, especially when you don’t often think you are, it’s a very powerful drug. Sports can do that for you.

When parents tell their children they’re special, and they’re loved, they tend to grow up feeling good about themselves, and usually don’t have a burning desire to gain the approval of the rest of the world. But if you don’t grow up with that sense of security, then the next-best thing is to get it from thousands of strangers cheering for you.

I don’t think I would have pursued sports as a career if I wasn’t searching for something I couldn’t get at home. Unlike some of my colleagues at ESPN, I didn’t get into this field because I was consumed by sports. Most of the guys I work with worship the legends we grew up watching, and they dreamed of doing what we do now. When my good friend Chris Berman was a kid, he was so taken by the idea of becoming a sportscaster that he used to play “Sports Announcer” in his backyard, using a pencil for a microphone.

That wasn’t me. Obviously, I love sports, but probably not as much as many of our viewers. I don’t watch every game, I can’t recall every pitch, and I can’t recite statistics from the 1950s. Growing up, sports provided a way to get noticed, and, I hoped, a chance to make big money in the pros.

The appeal of this dream went beyond a need for acceptance. Whenever our phone rang, I assumed it was a bill collector. To this day, I have a Pavlovian reaction that a ringing phone means bad news. We were often visited by a bailiff at our door, with legal judgments against our father for failing to pay outstanding bills. By the time I was 11, I had already learned that if I didn't touch the summons, it could not be served.

Over time, I learned to field just about everything my father could throw at me, including his fists. But I never could understand why he left us hungry. I resented every night we sat at the kitchen table, peeling potatoes, one of the few foods we could afford. Our mom turned these into delicious potato pancakes, which we all loved.

But peeling those potatoes, I told myself that, whatever I did for a living, I’d be able to buy all the things I dreamed of having as a kid. And not just food, but a nice, big home, a reliable car, and new clothes. You can get those things by being a doctor or lawyer, of course, but money alone wasn’t enough for me. Being a nobody at home fueled my ambition to be somebody, to be recognized and respected. So I dreamed of being an actor, or a rock-and-roll legend, or a hockey star.  It might have been a misguided ambition – what were the odds? – but it drove me. I was determined never to be a nobody again.

But even hearing 5,000 fans cheering for you at a Pee Wee hockey tournament in Hull, Quebec, was no substitute for my father’s approval. In the middle of this tournament, during one of the best weekends of my life, I remember looking up in the stands, and wishing my dad had been there to see me score, and hear all the people cheering for me. I fantasized that finally, he would tell me I had impressed him.

Of course, the scoreboard might be coolly objective, but the coaches don’t have to be. Most coaches play favorites, which is why I loved playing on a Bantam travel hockey team – for players in grades eight and nine – for Roger St. Onge. He was a young man, probably in his late 20s, but he had the look of a hockey lifer. He wore his black hair combed straight back, with a two-day beard, and a windbreaker from one of his old teams. Coach St. Onge didn’t speak too much English, so he kept it simple, “John, Bernie – go!”

But his philosophy was just as simple, and I loved it. Coach St. Onge was completely consistent and fair. With him, my performance directly determined his actions: play better, and I got more ice time. Play worse, and I got less. This sounds straightforward, but how many coaches do that, every game, with everyone on their team?

Through him, hockey gave me things I couldn’t seem to get anywhere else, including structure, a sense of fairness, and male role models.

I was a very good running back, pitcher, sprinter, and high jumper, but for me, hockey eclipsed them all. Montreal is home to the Canadiens, the Yankees of hockey, and our area produced serious players. If you played well in Chateauguay, you could make a better life for yourself.

By high school, I was one of the best players in the area. I was being courted by Ivy League teams out east, and Midwestern programs like Michigan and Michigan State. Not only did I believe hockey would give me my best chance to get to college, I had no doubt that I'd make it to the National Hockey League.

But my hockey dreams were about to run into two major obstacles. One I couldn’t control. The other I could, but chose not to.

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.