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How Magic Tricks Saved One NFL Player’s Life

Jon Dorenbos of the Philadelphia Eagles used football and card tricks to overcome childhood tragedy

Philadelphia Eagles, Jon Dorenbos, NFL

Jon Dorenbos of the Philadelphia Eagles learned card tricks to cope with a childhood tragedy.

Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty

Philadelphia Eagles long snapper Jon Dorenbos sounds affable on the phone, despite recently coming out surgery for a shattered wrist that ended his season earlier than expected.

“Even with the injury that I’m dealing with right now, and the surgery being more painful than I thought it would be, I’ve never been in the position that I thought I would quit on myself.”

After fourteen years in the NFL, and having just signed a three-year extension with the Eagles, it was no doubt a disappointing way to end a season. But Dorenbos has a history of focusing on the positive, even when the faced with the worst of tragedies.

On August, 2, 1990, his life changed forever while Jon played nearby at their neighbor’s house. His father, Alan, beat Dorenbos’ mother, Kathy, to death with a power tool after he “lost it” in an argument. After the attack, Alan calmly brought his 12-year-old son home, played cards with him, and before putting him to bed, told him his mother went on a walk.

When he went to baseball camp the following morning, he assumed his mother had gone on a morning swim. Around lunch time though, parents of a friend picked up him up, explaining there had been a family emergency. It was at the police station where he learned his mother had died.

His father was sentenced to 14 years in prison on the charges of second-degree murder, with the help of 12-year-old Dorenbos’ testimony, along with his brother Randy’s. Then after an arduous two year custody battle, Jon went to live with his aunt and uncle Susan and Steve Hindman in California, uprooting his life from Woodinville, WA.

Not many would have imagined who Dorenbos would become or how he would use his story to inspire others. But it was the unexpected combination of football and magic that would provide him the foundation of healing he needed in his youth.

“Both were outlets for me. Football allowed me to get out the anger, in a controlled environment. With magic, when I was shuffling cards the only thing I thought of was the magic. It gave me an out and a clarity of mind and it allowed me to separate myself from the rest of the world.”

Magic came before football, when a family friend’s son, Michael, who was 16 years-old, performed a thirty minute magic show for him after his mother’s passing.

“I actually have a videotape of me watching magic for the first time,” he says with a hint of fondness in his voice. 

That brief exposure to magic opened up Jon to hope and healing, “It was by far the coolest thing I had ever seen. I loved the energy it gave the room and how it made people happy. So they took me to the magic shop that Michael would go to and I got a book and learned all the moves in the book. I did it everyday, and it’s been 25 years since. It was truly love at first sight for me.”

His love for magic turned into an obsession, and a few years later, while playing the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) he made money on the side, performing at parties, sometimes earning up to a thousand dollars an hour.

But before he played at UTEP as a long snapper, he had to perform a little magic to even get recruited to the school.

His high school football teammate Paul Tessier who played at UTEP, called Dorenbos during his freshman year at Golden West Junior College saying that the school desperately needed a long snapper.

“I had snapped a little bit when I was in high school but it had been over a year since,” Dorenbos recalls, admitting that he was not the best candidate for the job.

But in true Dorenbos form, he figured out a way to make it work. He spliced together a tape of two of his teammates at Golden West, one who was a long snapper, threw in some video of his high school playing days, doctored the tape a bit, and sent it in.

Soon, he received a call with a full-ride offer in hand.

It was Dorenbos’ affinity for the spotlight that drove him towards the path of performing magic and playing football. 

“I loved baseball, but it was a little slow. And I wanted to be in front of large crowds because I wanted to be a rock star. I wanted to run out of a tunnel in front of thousands of people, so I chose football because of the energy.”

He applied what he learned from magic to improving his skills as a long snapper. 

“The one thing that magic taught me when I was young is that some things can be very difficult to understand and apply, but if I stick with it I can figure it out. But after a few months I began to be able to figure it out and I would perform in front of a mirror and be like, ‘So that’s what it’s supposed to look like,’ and that’s when the progression started to happen. I have an obsession with practicing one thing over, over, and over and searching for the perfect way and I like that process. Snapping for me was kind of the same thing. I would snap it eight yards on a field goal and snap it 15 yards on a punt. And that’s what I’m in search of: the perfect rep.”

And just last year, he had the opportunity to challenge himself more. Dorenbos competed on the popular television show America’s Got Talent, all while in training camp.

Dorenbos would take red-eyes back and forth between Los Angeles and Philadelphia, but instead of focusing on not having any time off, he relished the experience, “I was competing on one of the top shows on television and also getting to compete in the NFL at the same time. Those are champagne problems.”

During the show Dorenbos said he had the opportunity to hone his craft of magic, and he put his skills of problem-solving into play to help win over the judges. Every trick that he performed during the show, involved all four of the judges, and if something did not go as planned, he would look for material that would stick.

He went on to finish third on the show, winning the heart of viewers all over who resonated with his tenacity, opening the door to more speaking opportunities, and yes, more traveling and juggling of the schedule.

While he has had a long career in football, Dorenbos believes magic has taught him something invaluable. 

“Magic has made me a good problem solver in life. Dealing with what I did as a child, I really don’t think there’s much that will be worse than that. Overall though, I have a burning desire to be best teammate, to be the best family member, to be a great friend. I think about losing my family; about living in a foster home; I think about living with my aunt and everything she sacrificed. All those things built character within me, that I won’t allow myself to give up on myself. My family and others around me having invested too much into me for me to quit so I’ll keep getting up.”

In This Article: Football, NFL

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