Holding on to hope: An excerpt from 'Playing Hurt'

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This story appears in the Aug. 21 edition of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

By the spring of 2012, I had still not fully recovered from a brain injury I'd suffered on Sept. 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 relearning 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: college basketball's Championship Week, which is like air-traffic control on speed. I still wasn't operating at full capacity, but I knew if I could do this, I could do just about anything ESPN asked of me. And if I couldn't, I'd have to 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 my producer and good friend Rob Lemley. After the first day, he said, "You're still not quite yourself, but today was a good start."

When I asked 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 nodded, "OK."

Producer 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. I couldn't remember who he was. 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 50 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.


From "Playing Hurt: My Journey From Despair to Hope," by late ESPN broadcaster John Saunders, with John U. Bacon. Copyright © 2017. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books. Excerpted by permission.