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John Saunders: Mentor, husband, friend, colleague … you will be missed

‘I saw a dude who knew what the heck he was doing who looked like me’

He was a black man with three decades’ experience in sportscasting’s big leagues. So when John Saunders decided to face the camera and speak out about black athletes and race, you knew it was time to pay attention.

“One of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard is someone questioning the leadership of an African-American athlete by saying he isn’t black enough,” Saunders said, launching into a classic “Parting Shots” segment on the ESPN show he hosted with style and grace for 15 years, Sports Reporters.

“Black enough for who? Street cred is meant for rappers, not quarterbacks,” he added, speaking in 2014 on rumored locker room criticism of stars such as Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III. “You know what being black means to me? Think of the dawn of civilization. The great minds, artists and creators in history. Survivors of the world’s greatest theft. And still overcoming and producing brilliance in a world where the education and legal systems are anything but fair.”

In a way, Saunders could have been talking about himself. A native of Canada, his on-air style was always a bit different from the stereotypes expected of African-Americans working the broadcast booth.

A former all-star hockey player who suited up at Western Michigan University and Ryerson Polytechnical, he avoided the ex-jock’s trap of getting too caught up in the details or too focused on himself. An old-school broadcaster who started his career in the 1970s, Saunders was a skilled, all-purpose sportscaster capable of leading coverage on college football, hockey, the NFL or pro basketball without breaking a sweat.

At a media moment when big-name sports commentators make their bones by being brash, divisive and in-your-face, Saunders kept it real with a solid professionalism that proved, time and again, why he kept high-profile jobs at ESPN for 30 years. On Saturdays, he’d be dispassionately leading college football coverage; on Sundays, he’d confidently roll out his opinions while wrangling the other big personalities featured on Sports Reporters.

Madison Square Garden (from left): Rece Davis, Jay Williams, Seth Greenberg, John Saunders and Jay Bilas on the set of College GameDay Covered by State Farm during the Men’s Jimmy V Classic.

Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images

His reputation for serving as a solid mentor and down-to-earth example for younger talents hoping to build a career was legendary.

So it made sense that, when news broke Aug. 10 of Saunders’ death at age 61, thoughts would turn to how effortlessly he epitomized the quiet, boundary-breaking attitudes he schooled viewers on in that 2014 commentary.

“Most of those who question someone’s blackness know more about Dr. Dre than Dr. King,” he noted then. “There was another African-American some labeled not black enough. Now they call him Mr. President.”

Saunders subverted and challenged stereotypes about being “black enough” as a sportscaster throughout his career. Days before his death, he spoke on a panel organized by ESPN at the joint convention of the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists – revealing that he had once worked as a country music DJ with the name Country John Saunders.

“When I saw John on TV do his thing, I could see me,” said fellow ESPN anchor Jay Harris, who moderated that journalism panel where Saunders spoke. “I’m not a catchphrase, out-there kind of anchor, so when I saw him on TV … I saw a dude who knew what the heck he was doing who looked like me.”

You only had to watch the tearful on-air tributes from African-American colleagues such as Stephen A. Smith and Jemele Hill – who talked emotionally about how Saunders was a mentor and advocate for staffers inside ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters – to know that he remained aware of his unique status as a pioneering black broadcaster.

“The guy [viewers] saw at home was the guy we grew to know and love,” said Smith during one on-air tribute, dubbing Saunders “The Godfather” for his longevity at ESPN. “The generosity, the approachability … all of those [characteristics] …That was him.”

Born in Ajax, Ontario, Saunders got involved in sports broadcasting while in school, working a variety of sports casting jobs in Canada before moving to Baltimore’s WMAR-TV, where he anchored three daily sports reports. But he moved toward becoming one of the best-known names in sports broadcasting when he moved to ESPN in 1986, joining a cadre of influential early voices that included Bob Ley, Chris Berman and Dick Vitale.

John Saunders on the set of College GameDay Built by the Home Depot

Allen Kee / ESPN Images

Saunders’ solid professionalism turned out to be a great counterpoint to Vitale’s irrepressible energy, and the two worked together well covering basketball games. Vitale told the Associated Press that Saunders was there for him when he had throat surgery in 2008.

“The doctor told me that there was a good chance it was going to be cancer,” Vitale added. “I said, ‘John, do me a favor. When you come in that room after, just give me thumbs-up if it’s not … and if it is don’t do anything.’ And when I woke, the first guy I saw after surgery was John and I saw thumbs-up and we hugged.”

One style, many talents

At ESPN, Saunders seemed to do it all with charm and professionalism. Sideline reports during college football games. World Series coverage. Appearances on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Play-by-play work on college basketball and WNBA games.

And then, in 2001, he stepped in for ailing Sports Reporters host Dick Schapp, who was recovering from a hip replacement operation, not long after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks.

Saunders spoke about subbing for Schaap to authors James Andrew Miller and Thomas Shales for the book that provided an oral history of ESPN, Those Guys Have All the Fun: “Originally, they approached me just to fill in for a week or two, and I’m not sure why, other than the fact that maybe because I live in New York it wouldn’t cost them a hotel room or a car service to get me down here … After I did the show, I went home and said to my wife, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again. I’m not sure I’m the guy who can handle those personalities.’ But as I continued to do the show week after week … I realized the show was in some ways tailor-made for my personality, because it allowed the other guys to be who they were. When it comes to television, my philosophy has always been that I don’t get upset at people, I don’t have a big ego about it, and I’m not in it for the celebrity.”

How many people who have been in sportscasting for decades can say that?

“I think the reason he was successful, he wasn’t trying to take Schaap’s place … he was just being John,” said Jay Harris. “He listened – basic communications skills. John would listen and steer the conversation where he wanted it to go without you realizing he took you there.”

Schaap died later in 2001, leaving Saunders as the permanent host, presiding over a crew of journalists that included names like Mike Lupica, Mitch Albom, Bob Ryan and Bill Rhoden.

Host John Saunders on the set of ESPN'

Host John Saunders on the set of ESPN’s The Sports Reporters on Aug. 29, 2010, in Bristol, Connecticut.

John Atashian/ESPN

Those four men paid tribute to Saunders on a special edition of Sports Reporters last week, with Ryan noting “ESPN has lost a first-ballot, hall of fame TV talent … Live TV is treacherous and stressful. And he mastered the arts of making everything look easy.”

Outside of sportscasting, Saunders served as founding member on the board of directors for The V Foundation for Cancer Research, helping the foundation named for his friend and late colleague Jim Valvano. And he was about to see his first book published in April 2017; called Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope. It outlines his long struggle with depression.

According to the synopsis featured on Amazon, Saunders’ book describes how depression “nearly cost him his life … His story unfolds as so many of our lives do — among family, friends, and colleagues — but it also peers into places we don’t often discuss openly — psych wards and hospitals. Here is the honest story of a public figure facing his own mental illness head on, and emerging far better off for his effort.”

Harris said losing Saunders after the death of anchor Stuart Scott – who died in January 2015 after a battle with cancer – has taken two major African-American sportscasting stars from the halls of ESPN.

“The two of them were so different … in a lot of ways, they showed the diversity of us as black people,” he said. “Losing both of those guys so close together leaves a big gaping hole here.”

Saunders’ wife, Wanda, and his brother, Bernie, welcomed friends and guests at a visitation Thursday at Edwards Dowdle Funeral Home in Dobbs Ferry New York. The immediate family held private funeral services last weekend.

Eric Deggans is TV critic at NPR.