Jon Dorenbos sat in a stadium suite in Minneapolis on Feb. 4 and watched his team for 11 seasons win the Super Bowl. He had expected to play for the Eagles last season before they traded their longest-tenured player in August, one week before the first game.
Instead, Dorenbos was retired and recovering from open-heart surgery. A physical examination by his new team had revealed an aortic aneurysm, and Dorenbos, now 38, required a valve replacement. His football career was finished.
Dorenbos would still ride in the Eagles' victory parade later that month and receive a Super Bowl ring, both gestures from Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. But, no longer able to play football, he pivoted to a career of magic and motivational speaking.
For a moment, Dorenbos' joy while watching the most memorable game in Eagles history was tinged with bitterness in his once-broken heart.
Then, he looked at his wife and smiled. She smiled back.
"How can this be bittersweet?" Dorenbos said. "If I play, I die."
Before the 2017 season, Dorenbos honeymooned with his wife, Annalise, in Bora Bora. They went swimming with sharks. Dorenbos, a good swimmer, could keep his head under water for only a few seconds. He couldn't imagine he was that out of shape.
"You're not thinking you have an aneurysm in your heart," Dorenbos said.
Afterward, Dorenbos returned to Philadelphia to begin his 12th season. The Eagles had signed him to a three-year contract extension in 2016, a season in which he tied Harold Carmichael for the most consecutive games played in franchise history, 162. He took a physical for what was set to be a record-breaking season without apparent issue.
But in training camp, Dorenbos didn't take on his normal workload. Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp wanted to make a change at long snapper, and Dorenbos was demoted from the first team. He split snaps in the preseason. He didn't agree with the change, believing he was the best long snapper for the Eagles.
"There were times I was like, 'Why am I even out here?' " Dorenbos said. "I was pissed. But guess what? That bought me time. And it ended up saving my life."
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The Eagles decided to go with Rick Lovato as the long snapper before the preseason finale and wanted to trade Dorenbos. When Dorenbos was told the New Orleans Saints were interested, he figured it would be a good place to go. After all, they were Ellen DeGeneres' favorite team. Plus, they played in a dome — a good place for Dorenbos to finish out his career.
After playing the final preseason game in New Orleans, Dorenbos completed his physical. He took three breaths while the doctor, John Amoss, listened with a stethoscope. Amoss told Dorenbos that his heart didn't sound right. Dorenbos went to a hospital for further evaluation, which included an echocardiogram. It was the first time his heart was examined so closely. When Dorenbos returned to his hotel, he received a call from a New Orleans number.
"You're never playing football ever again, and you need to have emergency open-heart surgery," Dorenbos heard on the other end of the phone.
"It went blurry after that," Dorenbos said.
The diagnosis was an aortic aneurysm, and he needed a valve replacement. When the news broke, Dorenbos' phone was flooded with messages. He heard from teammates, coaches, opposing coaches, even coaches from other sports. From those familiar with the procedure required, the recommendation seemed unanimous: The doctor he needed to see was Joseph Bavaria at the University of Pennsylvania. Bavaria told him to "get your butt on a plane and get up here so I can save your life," according to Dorenbos.
Returning to Philadelphia would not be a problem. Dorenbos received a call from Lurie, with whom Dorenbos was close during his decade with the Eagles.
"You can go anywhere in the world. My plane would be on the runway for you wherever you need to go," Lurie told Dorenbos. "Wherever you need to go, you're going there right now. Don't even ask. The captain's waiting for your call. If you've got to go to Germany, so be it. The plane will take you to Germany."
"Good news for you," Dorenbos responded. "It's a much cheaper flight. We're just coming back to Philly. Although I'd love to take your plane to Germany."
You are not who you were
The surgery was scheduled for 4½ hours. It took 10½ hours, involving both the repairing of the aneurysm and the replacing of a bicuspid valve. He remained in the hospital for 3½ weeks after surgery. Walking to touch the door knob left him exhausted. When he was allowed to go to the gym, climbing three steps constituted a workout. His temper overtook him at times, and he started to understand why those who have heart surgeries are prone to depression.
"You reach a moment where you realize emotionally you are not who you were," Dorenbos said.
He slept in a recliner because he couldn't lie flat for long, buying a second one so he could rest next to his wife. He realized what she had to endure, the fear that he might stop breathing.
Dorenbos has since made lifestyle changes and is on blood-pressure medication, and he still has six months to improve his heart to avoid going on the heart transplant list. His health is trending in the right direction. He returns to his car after positive appointments with tears in his eyes.
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One of the unanswered questions during this process was why this went undiscovered in previous physicals with the Eagles. Dorenbos doesn't know.
"Sometimes it flares up. Sometimes it doesn't," Dorenbos said. "It's one of those things. I got extremely lucky that when I left Philly and went to New Orleans — maybe it was the stress of getting traded, whatever it was — when I sat on that bench … he heard it."
The Eagles have not commented on Dorenbos' medical history. In a previous statement, Lurie said that Dorenbos is "like family" and that the team's thoughts were with Dorenbos and his wife.
Dorenbos, who was born with a congenital heart defect, said every player should be required to undergo an echocardiogram. He thinks about what would have happened had he remained with the Eagles and he ran too hard or if he was hit awkwardly in his chest. Before anyone knew what had happened to him, Dorenbos said, he would have died.
"Up until that point, it had not been discovered," Dorenbos said. "I'm not saying it might not have been discovered with the Eagles going forward. But all those things led up to me getting traded. And if you look at the symbolism in life, I got traded to New Orleans to be saved by a Saint. It's amazing."
After Dorenbos was retired, former Eagles punter Donnie Jones went to coach Doug Pederson's office and discussed Dorenbos. If the Eagles made the Super Bowl, it was determined that Dorenbos would go with the team.
"To be honest with you, the first few months there, I wasn't paying attention to anything," Dorenbos said. "You're on drugs staring at a wall. But as I got off the meds, you're watching, and the Eagles are winning. I'm like, 'Who are you kidding?' "
He attended the Eagles' Oct. 23 win over Washington and received an emphatic ovation from the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field. The scoreboard read, "Get Well Jon!" After the Eagles won the NFC championship, he waited to see if it was true that he would go to the Super Bowl. Sure enough, the phone rang the week before the game with the logistics.
At Lurie's party on the eve of the Super Bowl, the Eagles owner gave Dorenbos a big hug.
"Hey, you're family," Lurie told him. "I have a really good feeling we're going to win this. And when we do, you're getting a player's ring. I'm not giving you just a ring. You're getting a player's ring. I love you."
Dorenbos watched the game with those bittersweet emotions before the reality check. And when the Eagles won, Dorenbos celebrated on the field with his wife. He held the Lombardi Trophy. He joined his former teammates in the locker room. Dorenbos had been an all-pro. He had been a Pro Bowler. The Super Bowl was all that was left for him to achieve. He never thought he would experience it when he was forced to retire. And, at that moment, even though he didn't snap the ball, he felt connected to the team.
Dorenbos was even invited to ride in the parade up Broad Street. He thought he would join Jones, just as he always did, before he was redirected to an alumni bus. Dorenbos and Brian Dawkins stood at the front. That was good enough for him. And when the Eagles started fitting members of the organization for rings, Lurie called Dorenbos again.
"The Super Bowl for you is life," Lurie told him. "And the ring is for all you've done here the past 12 years, and you deserve it just as much as anyone."
It occurred to Dorenbos that he had a Super Bowl ring not for his snapping but for the way he was viewed in the organization. It was a rewarding lesson for Dorenbos, who took it to heart – one that is getting healthier by the day.
"It ended up being perfect," Dorenbos said.
Life after football
Drive over the Walt Whitman Bridge this summer from New Jersey to Philadelphia, and you'll see a billboard promoting "An Evening with Jon Dorenbos" at SugarHouse Casino on Aug. 24-25. It's rare for a long snapper to get noticed in public. It's unheard of for one to appear on a billboard.
But this is all part of Dorenbos' new life. His success on America's Got Talent in 2016 allowed him to transcend football fans. His appearances on The Ellen Show continued opening doors. He's a magician and motivational speaker, using his magic and his life story to make "people leave feeling better about their life situations than when they came in."
Dorenbos said his on-stage influences are Garth Brooks, Carrot Top and Mike Tyson. His core business has become corporate speaking. His act has been years in the making because Dorenbos said he thought he would be released and needed to find something else to do before every season with the Eagles.
"It's my life story – the good times, the bad times, and literally the magic of life happened," said Dorenbos, who also will be appearing at the State Theatre in Easton, Pa., on Sept. 21 and the American Music Theatre in Lancaster, Pa., on Sept. 22.
On Aug. 28, one year will have passed since Dorenbos was traded. It hasn't been the year he anticipated, and he's maintained a place in his heart for Philadelphia and Eagles fans. He said he was inspired by Dawkins when he played. He never wanted to be traded. He never wanted his football career to end so suddenly. But he has thought often about his attitude and finding the positives of his new reality.
That's why, one year later, Dorenbos isn't left with a broken heart.