The late ESPN host and commentator recounts years of struggle with mental illness.
Saunders (1955-2016) died of what co-writer Bacon (Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football, 2015, etc.) describes as “a combination of enlarged heart, complications from his diabetes, and dysautonomia, which affects the automatic nervous system that regulates breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate.” In other words, he died at 61 of what are generally considered natural causes. The hardships Saunders recounts here are of a more existential nature: abused as a child, he grew up dependent on drugs and alcohol, more than once contemplating suicide: “I preferred fantasizing about dying in spectacular fashion than planning how I might actually do it.” Though inclined to self-belittlement rather than self-aggrandizement, he was also a formidable hockey player who didn’t mind the brutality of the sport. One key passage describes a series of maneuvers that by all rights should have led to banishment: “to understand a cross-check, imagine gripping a broomstick with your hands about three feet apart, then using the middle portion to smash someone’s face while he’s skating toward you.” Deciding he was better suited to the other side of the glass, Saunders worked his way through the ranks of sports reporting and announcing, beginning with a minor station in New Brunswick and ending up at the pinnacle, ESPN. Even there, he writes, he contemplated leaping from the Tappan Zee bridge and ending his unhappiness. Of as much interest as his difficulties are his efforts to overcome illness, from cognitive therapy to medication and hospitalization; some of it worked, at least for a while, but much did not. Saunders writes without much flair but with plenty of awareness. “Depression allows you to have incredible insights into other people’s souls yet still be incapable of transferring those insights to your own situation,” he writes—though the chief point of his tale is that insight can come, if at a price.
A story that merits both sympathy and attention.