ESPN’s John Saunders was calm in middle of debates

Sports TV host John Saunders did his job without ego for ESPN for nearly 30 years, unexpectedly died Tuesday night at age 61

I was sitting at my computer Wednesday morning when the phone rang.

“I have some terrible news.”

The trembling voice belonged to Joe Valerio, the longtime producer of ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters.” I have been a part of that show for more than 20 years. But in a million years, I would not have guessed the next words out of Joe’s mouth.

“John Saunders died last night.”

I’m still at that computer now, hours later, writing these words because I don’t know how else to steel myself against the oncoming grief. I saw John every few weeks for the last 15 years. I was to see him this weekend. Now he’s gone. That fast?

That fast. The quickest trip we take is the journey from this world to the next. But life, not death, should be the John Saunders story today.

So let me tell you about his life.

John was, quite simply, the best of us. He did his job without ego, prejudice or overacting — a rare thing in TV journalism these days. Blessed with one of those booming voices that turns your head, John, for 30 years, was a fixture on ESPN. He hosted “SportsCenter,” “NFL Prime Time,” college football, NBA and NHL shows, even a World Series.

He was terrific at all those things. But where he truly shone, and where, he once told me, he most enjoyed the work, was sitting in the middle of our weekly debate Sunday mornings. “The Sports Reporters” has been on the air for 28 years — an amazing run in television — and John has been host for more than half of that. So if the regular panelists want to claim him as our own, the world will forgive us.

Who didn’t want to claim John as family?

He became one of us

Born just outside of Toronto, and a college hockey player at Western Michigan and Ryerson University, John rose through the ranks at ESPN and took over, temporarily, the center seat on “The Sports Reporters” 15 years ago, on a set in New York City that was still shaking from 9/11.

It was dire circumstances on many levels. The show’s previous longtime host, Dick Schaap, was as beloved a man as there was in broadcasting. He’d fallen ill with complications from surgery. John was a fill-in, and at first had no interest in the job or doing it one week longer than necessary.

“Those guys are egomaniacs,” he told his wife, and I can only hope he said it with a smile on his face.

But as the weeks passed, Schaap did not get better. And John, despite his initial hesitations, seemed born to that center chair. It is not easy to sit amid highly-opinionated, strongly-vocal sportswriters and not get buried in their wake. But John was always a presence, a strong, authoritative master of the ceremony, yet a guy who you instantly liked and trusted. He gave the show a professional elegance. He all but sang us into breaks and segments. He quizzed us, tested us, calmed us and honored us.

And finally, when Dick Schaap died that December, he became one of us — for good.

Educated in his opinions

In 15 years, you get to know a guy. I knew about John’s family as he knew about mine. I knew he adored his wife and daughters, and was passionate about any issue concerning women’s safety or rights. Our achievements, family photos, milestones and travels were all shared in the early hours Sunday morning in the green room, over coffee and fruit.

John had the best laugh. “Hearty” is the word that comes to mind, and he was hearty in so many ways. He loved good jokes and good food and if you slapped his back, you felt the hearty, thick muscle that served him in his younger athletic years. Yet if you told him a moving story, you could see tears form in his eyes. He was sensitive while being strong, passionate while being even-handed, and the star of the show when he did the least talking.

It is hard to meet anyone in the TV business who doesn’t have detractors, but if anyone had an unkind word to say about John Saunders, I’m yet to hear it. He loved hockey, and fought to get it into the program, despite the audience’s obvious preference for football or baseball. And while he was often cast as the “neutral” party as a host, John was extremely opinionated, and educated in those opinions. You could hear this in his wonderful “parting shots” on “The Sports Reporters” that closed the show, often on topics of race, abuse, women’s issues or players’ bad behavior.

He gave a memorable rant in 2014 about fellow African Americans complaining that certain athletes weren’t “black” enough, ending with this fine zinger:

“There was another African American some labeled as not black enough. Now they call him Mr. President.”

The anchor to us all

John, who was 61, was not always healthy. We knew that. He suffered from diabetes, and many Sundays began with his hands shaking as he lurched for an orange juice and gave himself an insulin injection. He’d suffered through two auto accidents and had multiple concussions in his hockey years.

There were also many mornings where he’d worked past midnight the night before, hosting hours and hours of college football, and the only word to describe his entrance was “dragging.” He looked like the air had been let out of his body, and we did our best to make him laugh and get back into it.

Shortly after I got the phone call Wednesday morning, I called Mike Lupica, the New York Daily News columnist who sits across from me on the show, and who has been with the program the longest. He likened John’s first shows to “Sidney Poitier in ‘To Sir With Love,’ ” taking care of the wayward kids.

If so, he was the best teacher. He was never envious in a world full of envy, never whispered about in a world full of whispers. He was a friend in front of and behind your back, and a fierce advocate for those stricken with cancer, helping on the board of the V Foundation for years and raising millions in the battle against the disease that killed his friend, Jim Valvano.

He seemed compelled to make good out of grief.

And now we are left to do the same.

There is a reason that the ESPN broadcasters bringing you the news of his death seem to be shaken, their voices trembling. He was a friend to that many. And a dear friend to me.

I am scheduled to do the show this Sunday. I don’t know how. I know I will be waiting for the door to swing open and John to come trudging through, to hear that booming voice, to talk hockey, or children, as he grabs a paper plate and some fruit.

It takes years to make a true friend, and an instant to lose one. As I age, I don’t want to answer my phone anymore. This Sunday, no matter who is sitting in the center chair, I’ll be seeing someone else, the big, hearty guy. We revolved around him, planets to the sun, John Saunders, the anchor to us all.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.

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