His father killed his mother. Nobody wanted him to play big-time college football or pro football for them. And his broken heart could have killed him 1,000 times on the football field.
But Jon Dorenbos always finds the silver lining.
He lost himself in magic while his dad was in jail, finding peace in the sound of the shuffling cards — a skill that twice landed him on America’s Got Talent and has earned him countless spots on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He used some slick editing to market himself out of junior college and into Texas-El Paso, then earned a long pro career and went to two Pro Bowls. And now, at 40, after surviving open-heart surgery, he’s a chick-flick guy who loves Kenny G, raising a toddler in a country wracked by an unrest and political turmoil spearheaded by President Donald Trump — but he believes the nation his daughter inherits will have shed its apathy.
“You’re for Trump, you’re against Trump, you think Trump’s the worst ... I don’t follow politics as much as I should,” Dorenbos said. "This is the first political thing I’ve ever said in my entire life:
“We will know, in years to come, if the impact that Trump has had on this country was great or not. What I mean by that is this: I’m not saying he’s a good president. I’m not saying he’s not. What I’m saying is, if, in a few years, if he was either so bad, or made so many people angry enough to be more involved, and to vote, and to educate, and to change this country, then, if you ask me, he might have been one of the most influential presidents in the history of our country.”
Growth takes pain.
“Now, look: Did we have to do this, and have a lot of hate and divide during his presidency?” Dorenbos asked, sending his left hand into a nosedive. “We sure did. But what’s happened? Everybody started jumping on board. Because, now, people want to have a say in what’s going on. People wanted to take action. If that’s how our country comes out of this — more people involved, more people vote, more people have a say — then maybe this downside was meant to be. So, we can come out of this better.”
Jon Dorenbos is always coming out of things better.
Dorenbos spoke with me Tuesday afternoon on an episode of Inquirer LIVE! on Instagram, and he spoke of hope, and grit, and resilience. That is the theme of his book, Life is Magic. It is the theme of his corporate presentations. It is the theme of his life.
Maybe the Eagles should hire him for a show, because that’s what the Eagles need to hear right now.
“I don’t watch that much football,” explained Dorenbos, who is generally occupied with his wife, Annalise, and Amaya, their first child. “I have a 16-month-old.”
But yes, he knows about the Eagles' 0-2-1 record, and he offers the perspective of a 14-year NFL long snapper.
“I watched the Rams game. I watched a little bit of the Bengals game. I played a long time. As a player, this can’t concern you,” Dorenbos said. His 2004 9-7 Bills team started 0-4 and his 2013 Eagles team began 1-3 and won the NFC East. “There is a lot of time. But you’ve got to figure it out. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. ... Me, personally, I’m not too concerned. I’ve been in that locker room. I’ve been around those guys."
Besides, he said, the NFL is always unpredictable, but it will be especially fickle in 2020.
“You’ve got injuries. You’ve got all kinds of things that can affect the schedule," Dorenbos said. "You’ve got COVID.”
Playing in a pandemic in a sport where losing a player — especially a quarterback — can devastate a team certainly adds intrigue.
“The exciting thing about this year is, anything can happen," Dorenbos said. "All of a sudden, a guy tests positive, your whole game changes.”
Between the COVID-19 pandemic, social-justice issues, unemployment, and political division, Dorenbos understands that Americans are dealing with stresses they’ve never known before. His advice:
Find a coping mechanism. He found that magic quieted his rage after his father, Alan, beat to death his mother, Kathy, with a grinding tool at their home in Washington state in 1992. Dorenbos testified at the trial. He was 12.
He lived in foster care, and then with relatives, but effectively was an orphan whose family tragedy was national news.
“Magic was my ladder, climbing out of hell,” Dorenbos told me once.
But he didn’t fully escape torment until he confronted the killer in 2018. They hadn’t spoken in 26 years. Dorenbos would soon be a dad, and he believed he needed to face this demon. So, on his way from western Canada to his home in Las Vegas, he stopped and visited his father in Washington. They spoke for 5½ hours. Dorenbos felt anger. Resentment. Regret. He did it all for his daughter, whose middle name is, literally, Love.
“Instead of using that for vengeance — instead of just punching him in the face — I sat there and felt all that, because I told myself, ‘This is every feeling that I never want my daughter to have about me.’ "
That he even has a daughter, and that he lived to confront his father, is a miracle itself. In 2017, after 10½ seasons, the Eagles abruptly traded him to New Orleans. He figured, with his trademark optimism, that his softening body would look slimmer in all black, and that his 37-year-old bones would feel better playing indoors at least half the time.
It wasn’t his bones Dorenbos needed to worry about. During a routine physical, Saints doctors found a heart murmur. It turned out to be a 6-centimeter aortic aneurysm. His football career was over; so too, nearly, was his life.
“If that ruptures, and pops like a water balloon, you’re dead before you hit the ground,” Dorenbos said.
Within days he underwent open-heart surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie sent his private jet. Dorenbos is healthy today, and happy to be where he is.
In this age of COVID-19 and division and Donald J. Trump, he wants you to know that you can be happy, too.