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One-on-One Coverage: Jon Dorenbos on life's challenges, playing for Bills and magic

Rough doesn’t begin to describe Jon Dorenbos’ life before and after the 14 seasons he spent as an NFL long snapper, a career that began in 2003 with the Buffalo Bills.

At 12, he went through the unspeakable trauma of having his father kill his mother during an argument in the garage of their suburban Seattle home. With his sister visiting relatives in California and his brother at a basketball camp, Jon was the only child home at the time. He ended up in a foster home before being adopted by his aunt and uncle. His father served a 13-year, eight-month prison term for second-degree murder. Jon has had no contact with him since his release.

In early September 2017, only weeks after the Philadelphia Eagles traded him to the New Orleans Saints, Dorenbos was diagnosed with a serious heart condition that would require a long and difficult surgery and recovery, and ultimately force his retirement from football.

But Dorenbos, 38, had something to fall back on: his other career as a professional magician, which he pursued in part to help him cope with his mother’s tragic death. Dorenbos' magic allowed him to reach the finals of "America's Got Talent" in 2016. He incorporates magic tricks into motivational speaking he does around the country. Dorenbos also has received plenty of national recognition, with multiple appearances on Ellen DeGeneres' show in the past two years.

In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, The Buffalo News spent some time on the phone with Dorenbos to talk about his time with the Bills after signing as an undrafted free agent from the University of Texas at El Paso, his memories of Sean McDermott from when they were in Philadelphia at the same time, and getting a Super Bowl ring from the Eagles despite not playing for them.

Buffalo News: What do you think about when someone mentions Buffalo and the Bills?

Jon Dorenbos: The relationships. Having the dream come true of actually making it to the NFL. Getting to play with one of my kind of heroes growing up in the sports world, and that was Drew Bledsoe. You know what else I think of with a smile? Learning how to long snap in the worst possible conditions known to mankind, as far as weather. Realizing, if I can play there as a specialist, I can play anywhere in the league.

I’m a Southern California kid, so I had seen snow but not like that. And you see the dedication and the drive of the fans. One of my favorite memories was driving to a game and there was like a school bus with a trailer attached to the back with a hot tub. It’s snowing everywhere, it’s like 19 degrees outside and there’s a bunch of people with their shirts off and in bikinis in this Jacuzzi tailgating. I remember saying, “God, that's awesome! That could be me one day.”

I actually lived right around the corner from a restaurant called the Poppyseed (in Blasdell), and they had the best chicken chili. When I go back to Buffalo, I stop by the Poppyseed for the chicken chili. That, and, obviously, the Big Tree. After games, you go to Big Tree. I was lucky to play with Brian Moorman, who was the punter and who was very involved in the community. So my introduction to the Bills community was kind of riding his coattail and him introducing me and seeing really how the community responded to him and his PUNT Foundation.

BN: As an undrafted free agent, you pretty much can choose your team. Why the Bills?

JD: I had offers from other teams. Coming out of college, any money is more money than you’ve got. And I remember that the Green Bay Packers offered me exponentially more money up front. My agent told me, “Hey, man, don't worry about the money. Buffalo is going to offer a situation to where you’ll be the only snapper in camp and it’s your job to lose. So, if you go to the Packers and you take that money up front, you’re probably going to be what’s called a camp body. They have a long snapper there that’s been there a long time, he ain't going nowhere, and you'll probably get released. So if I were you, I would take less money and go to where you're going to get a job.” It was some of the best advice that I've been given.

I got to talk with (then-coach) Gregg Williams, (then-general manager) Tom Donahoe, and the special teams coach, Danny Smith, and I just got the sense that they believed in me and they wanted to see me succeed not just as a player, but as a person. And I liked that. I have no regrets about going there … super appreciative I got to play for those guys.

BN: You were only one of two undrafted free agents to make the final roster in 2003. What did defying those odds mean to you?

JD: It was me and a returner named Antonio Brown, who ran a 4.98 40 at our facility. Not to be confused with Antonio Brown of the Steelers. Now, keep in mind, I had never watched an NFL game before I played in one. And it wasn’t because I didn't like the sport. It’s just, I loved playing. … I loved the aggression of it, I loved the gladiator quality of it. I was a linebacker, I was a fullback. I used to love to hit, but when I was away from it, I was away. And then, when I wasn't playing, I was usually performing or doing other things and it was that balance that I think kind of helped me make it through the NFL and the ups and the downs, right?

I never thought I was going to make the NFL. I thought it'd be cool, a long shot long snapper from El Paso, Texas. But I wasn't really even familiar with the process of the draft or how everything works. My agent represented Brian Natkin, who was a tight end at UTEP. And Brian's like, “Dude, you could probably snap in the league. You should talk to my agent.”

BN: How did you dazzle some of your Bills teammates with magic?

JD: We did a rookie show back then at training camp. All the rookies got together and you had to put on a show at a team meeting. And part of that was me performing magic and I remember I did a trick where I asked Drew Bledsoe to draw a picture of a person. I said, “Try and make it as detailed as you can, like the feet, the head, the chest, the legs, the arms, the hands, the elbows. Draw kind of a good, cartoon outline of a person.” I remember Eric Moulds was sitting next to him. I said, Eric, “Who should we use?” He said, “Oh, man, you got to pick my man, Jonas.” So I asked Jonas Jennings, one of our offensive tackles, to stand up. Then I asked Drew to hand me the picture and asked him what part of the body should we poke or light on fire? Drew said, “His hands.”

As I poked it, Jonas didn't feel anything. As I lit it on fire, Jonas had a look on his face and said, “Yeah, yeah, my hands warm. And the whole room just goes, “Oh ...” And then, ultimately, I started the picture on fire and you could see a burn mark on the hand that's drawn. And then when Jonas turned his hand over, he had a giant black ash all over the other side of his hand and he flipped out. He pushed Ruben Brown out of the way and just ran out of the building. He completely freaked out. It was awesome.

BN: In 2004, your second year with the Bills, you led the league in tackles by a long snapper, even though the whole point of being a snapping specialist is to avoid a whole lot of contact. How much pride did you take in that?

JD: I’ll be totally honest with you, I was a really bad long snapper in Buffalo and I was still kind of trying to figure it out. I really struggled with the wind up there. Drew Bledsoe’s arm was so strong; I mean, I saw him on his knees throw it like 85-90 yards. It’s ridiculous how strong his arm is still today. And I just remember he threw a 10-yard out and it hit the wind and it just died. And all of a sudden, I was called in to long snap and I'm thinking to myself, “This guy couldn’t throw it overhand on a 10-yard out. I’ve got to throw it between my legs 25 feet? This is going to be amazing.”

But I was a linebacker in college and I was still young. I was in excellent shape and I knew that if I struggled long snapping, I’d better make tackles. Otherwise, what are you doing, right? And give them reasons to keep me around and to keep grooming me and to give me a chance to kind of figure my position out, if you will.

BN: Thirteen games in 2004, you ended up suffering a knee injury and being waived at the end of the 2005 preseason, then spent most of the ’05 season with the Tennessee Titans before finally getting your big break with the Eagles.

JD: The funny part about tearing my ACL in Buffalo, there was a fumble and we recovered it. Somebody fell in front of me and I was jogging to the celebration of the fumble recovery, and when I hopped over the guy, I just landed wrong and I tore my ACL. I tore my ACL on the way to a celebration. Terrible.

When I was with the Bills, there was a long snapper from the University at Buffalo named Adam Johnson. I remember somebody connected us, and he wanted me to work with him. And even though I wasn't a very good long snapper at the time, I'm like, “Yeah, let's do it.” So I showed him some tips. Well, at that workout with the Eagles was that frickin’ kid, Adam, from the University at Buffalo. And I remember thinking to myself, “I can't lose to a guy that I supposedly kind of give tips to. That would be just a stab to the heart. Just turn it in me. You can't lose to your student.”

I signed with the Eagles and Andy Reid called me up to his office. He goes, “You’re the Magic Man, huh? Show me a trick.” So the next thing you know, I’m doing magic up in Andy’s office. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I had studied pickpocketing for years and, once, I took off the watch of (the late) Jim Johnson, the Eagles’ legendary defensive coordinator, without him knowing. Then I did it for all the other coaches and everybody just went nuts.

After that, every time I walked by Jim Johnson, he always looked at me, took one step backwards and put his hand over his wristwatch and smiled. It would be like standing head-to-head with a tiger, and no matter where the tiger goes, you always keep eye contact and you just circle and walk backwards. He would do that every time. Even towards the end of his life, he kind of was doing the same thing in his wheelchair. It was pretty cool.

BN: How much pride do you have in tying the Eagles record for most consecutive games played at 162?

JD: It was one of those things where I never did it to break a record. I just did it because I knew that if I wasn't on the field, they're going to hire somebody younger and cheaper and I'd be out of a job, and I really loved to play. I did it because I wanted my teammates to look at me and count on me, no matter what. That meant a lot to me.

The irony of the whole thing is the Eagles actually announced during the game, “Congratulations to Jon Dorenbos tying the great (former receiver) Harold Carmichael for 162 straight games.” The very next play, I dislocate the lunate bone in my wrist, tore every ligament, and I was out.

BN: What drew you to magic and why are you so good at it?

JD: Obviously, after my dad murdered my mom and he went to prison, I went into a temporary foster home with my sister for a year, year and a half. And in the midst of that transition, I made the Little League All-Star team, so before I moved down to Southern California with my Aunt Susan, I stayed with the coach. They had a 16-year-old neighbor and he did a magic show. I was 13 years old or something, and the coach took me to a magic shop and I got my first trick and I just I loved it. I was just enamored by it.

I just loved doing something over and over and over and over and over in search of the perfect rep. I'm obsessed with that process. I think that's kind of what led me to have that obsession with snapping. It’s always going to be 15 yards (for a punt), it's always going to be eight yards (for a place kick). On a field goal, my ball is going to spin three and a half times. I'm going to hit the right spot and the laces will be out every time. So I need to hit the same spot with the same speed. Rain, sunshine, wind, it doesn't matter.

BN: While you were in Philadelphia, how well did you get to know Sean McDermott, who was on the coaching staff then?

JD: Pretty well. I love the guy. Sean was awesome to me, was kind to me, was nothing but encouraging. And when he got promoted to D coordinator, I just remember being so happy for the guy.

He just had this kind of ability just to kind of remain cool as a coach. And as a player, that's what you want. You want a coach that's going to remain cool. No matter if it's good or bad, you know you can look at him and he's got his composure. Instead of having an absolute freak out, he’s going to rally the troops and be more of a problem-solver than a complainer, be more of a “let's find the solution” than start pointing fingers and blaming people.

BN: What an incredible gesture for Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles’ owner, to give you a ring from his team’s Super Bowl victory against New England last year.

JD: I don't know too many players that get traded and get a Super Bowl ring from the team that traded them. It was cool. I mean, I spent a lot of time there, and I think it was one of those moments when Jeff decided that he was going to give me a ring. He and I had a conversation at training camp – this was probably back in ’07, ’08 – and I remember saying, “Look, Jeff, I’ve got to get a Super Bowl ring as a player, because I don't really want to coach. It’s just a lot of time.” So years and years later, this thing happens.

Jeff said, “Hey, you were here for a long time and you kind of helped mold this place. Hurt, sick, injured, you showed up. You’re a true pro, man. We missed you in the building and I remember you saying you were only going to get a ring as a player. Well, guess what? You didn't play, but you're still going to get a ring. And though it might have a different meaning for you, this ring for you is a symbol of being alive and how you conducted yourself for over a decade in that building. You deserve this just as much as anybody. So when you look at it, just remember that this ring stands for something a little bit different for you, but nonetheless you're still champion.” And I just lost it.

BN: The ordeal with your heart had to have been unimaginably frightening.

JD: So the surgery was about 11 hours. My wife and I were in the hospital around 30 days post-surgery. I had what's called a severely leaky valve, which basically was a 6-centimeter aortic ascending aneurysm. The aorta is the vein that leads to the heart and it should be about the size of like a dime or a nickel. Mine was the size of a Coke can. Picture the aorta like a water balloon, and if that thing pops, you’re done. So mine was on the verge of popping; it was way too big.

For the recovery, you're on 21 pills. I looked at what my wife went through. There's a lot of side effects for open-heart surgery. You have depression, you have anger, you have loss of patience, you have frustrations still to this day. It’s going to take, they say, almost two years to get past that.

I'm not proud of it. I was one of the most patient people I’ve ever met, but let me tell you, man, I punched out doors, I punched in kitchen cabinets. I've done things that are extremely uncharacteristic of kind of who I was. And it was all from being on these meds and dealing with the hormones and I have what’s called a Dacron sleeve in me (which was surgically placed around the aorta). You have all this foreign material in your body that your body's trying to figure out what it is.

BN: Aside from dealing with those health issues, what’s life like for you these days?

JD: Being a keynote speaker is definitely my core business. We’re sometimes in two, three, four states a week, and I love it. I get to speak, I get to perform. I have a 90-minute theater show and 60 minutes of that 90 minutes are the corporate speaking show.

The show is basically my life story and the magic I learned along the way that got me through the hard times and kind of helped me process life and kind of learn about myself and find happiness. I tell my life story and the things that I went through, from losing my parents to all the things in between the heart surgery, to overcoming that, to meeting my wife. It’s an inspirational story that life sometimes doesn't care what it throws at us, and it's about how we deal with it.

Do we live in vision? Or do we live in circumstance? And can we find positives in obstacles? Can we rethink our perspective on when something bad happens to us? Can we change the narrative in our own head to kind of maybe find more inspiration than defeat within that? And the words that we say to ourselves and how we talk to ourselves, that's the life you're going to live. So be careful how you talk to yourself, be careful how you motivate yourself.

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