Wil Haygood, author of seven nonfiction books and Scholar-in-Residence at Miami University, Ohio, has just been awarded the 2017-18 Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship prize at the C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.
This posthumously published memoir is dark, edgy, revelatory and quite sad. John Saunders was a much-admired ESPN sportscaster, notable for his suave delivery on air and talent for analysis amid the studio banter. He seemed totally in control. But Saunders was engulfed by demons, suffering for decades from depression. He harbored suicidal thoughts, harmed himself with razor blades, became addicted to prescription drugs and spent time in a psych ward where the screaming patients terrified him. He died Aug. 10, 2016, from a combination of ailments exacerbated by a heart attack. He was 61 years old. In a sports-mad nation, the mourning for him seemed genuine.
Saunders, along with co-author John U. Bacon, had been working on this memoir for quite some time before he died. His hope was to shine a light from his personal perspective — a man who happened to be a well-known black broadcaster who was engaged in a years-long attempt to conceal his mental suffering. Just as much of the black church-going populace had a hard time coming to grips with the AIDS crisis, so it has seemed, at times, with the stigma surrounding depression.
Saunders was born in Toronto in 1955. For the next 10 years his family moved between Toronto and Montreal. His father, Bernie, was a good friend of the great pianist Oscar Peterson, who became godfather to young John. But Bernie Saunders was a tyrant, a black man in white Canada visiting his pain upon John, his oldest of three children. John was kicked, slapped, punched and made to feel worthless. “If I was stupid enough to mouth off — and I was, many times — his fists proved the most convenient weapon,” Saunders writes. His mother, Jacqueline, had her own issues: She abided the beatings and told fabulous lies. She wanted more than anything to be a jazz singer.
Kids, of course, can withstand a lot of pain, but often the abuse becomes an anchor that settles inside and sinks ever downward. Such an anchor found a home inside young John Saunders.
He was still a kid when an older girl molested him, more than once, while giggling — incidents that forever thwarted his outlook on intimacy. In high school he played hockey, listened to Jimi Hendrix and smoked dope. Between the drugs, the abusive father and the sexual abuse, he whirled in and out of tailspins. “Killing myself seemed the only option that could end my pain, but the idea of actually doing it scared the hell out of me,” he writes.
He was good enough to be welcomed to Indiana University in 1974 to play hockey. But upon arrival, he was introduced to old-fashioned American racism. A hockey player, lolling about the dorm with other families during move-in week, used the n-word to refer to him. A group of white parents stood by in mocking silence. “Back home,” Saunders writes, referring to Canada, “racists like that were dinosaurs — you heard about them, but you didn’t think they still existed. I’d been called ‘n-----’ on occasion, usually by a hockey opponent looking for anything he could think of to rattle me. But I had never tasted real racism until I set foot in that Indiana dorm room.”
He bolted Indiana and enrolled at Western Michigan in the fall of 1974. At his new school, there was less overt racism, but he was bewildered by the black students who wondered why so many of his friends were white. His friends, for the most part, were hockey players.
Still, his dream of playing hockey at Western Michigan died for two reasons: He suffered an injury, then flunked out of the university. He returned to Toronto and got into Ryerson Polytechnical Institute — now known as Ryerson University — where he got his chance to play hockey.
But all was hardly well. He got married to a nice woman but felt he didn’t deserve her, and the marriage went bust. He began hearing voices — “not the kind a psychotic killer hears but my own inner voice, telling me to harm myself.” He wrote a suicide note. “Sorry and goodbye to those I love and who love me. This act is solely the responsibility of Bernard and Jacqueline Saunders. May they burn in hell.” Even though it was never sent, it’s a wincing note and shows the vise he was in.
So one wonders: How did Saunders hold it together and become so renowned? His rise began in radio, then it was back to America and work at a Baltimore television station. He was good, sharp, a beautiful mind with a beautiful delivery on air. ESPN came calling. He rose before our eyes on those football Saturday afternoons, the cool black cat holding the telecast together.
All the while — and this is the madness of the disease — he was sinking. He stood atop bridges and thought of jumping. There were hospital stays. Some of the medicines worked, others were awful. His second wife, Wanda, and two daughters loved him deeply. He had good friends inside ESPN.
The triggers, like ceaseless lightning bolts, hit him across the decades. His father had a secret family in Ohio; his sister, Gail, suffered from depression and died of an overdose of antidepressant medication. She was 41.
Though this is Saunders’s memoir, one wishes for more insight from two heroic figures: Wanda, his wife, and Bernie, the younger brother named after their father, who would often race to his brother’s side during times of crisis. As it is, this is an important book about mental illness and a man who was loved, but whose mind could never find peace.
By John Saunders with John U. Bacon
Da Capo. 293 pp. $27