There aren't many professional athletes that have a life as fascinating as that of Jon Dorenbos, who still continues to inspire the world with his amazing magic act and a backstory that captivated the nation.
Dorenbos, a two-time Pro Bowl long snapper for the Philadelphia Eagles who played in the NFL for 14 seasons, overcame incredible adversity as a child. When Dorenbos was 12, his father killed his mother and was convicted of second-degree murder. Jon's life changed from that day onward, as he used magic as an escape to cope with grief and loss.
Football was an outlet for Dorenbos too, earning a Division I scholarship at the University of Texas-El Paso as a long snapper -- in a different way than most. He found a way to stick around in the NFL before taking his magic act to the hit show "America's Got Talent," stunning himself by getting the golden buzzer and earning a third-place finish while participating on the show during the 2016 Eagles' regular season.
One of the most popular players in Eagles history, Dorenbos was shockingly traded to the New Orleans Saints days before the 2017 season. The trade ended up saving his life as Dorenbos discovered he needed open-heart surgery after Saints team physician Dr. John Amoss found he had an aortic aneurysm during his physical. If it wasn't discovered, Dorenbos would have likely died on the football field from a birth defect that took the lives of actors John Ritter and Alan Thicke (which wasn't discovered until after they passed away).
Dorenbos has a lot to be thankful for these days with a rising acting career, a touring magic show, and many other TV appearances in his post-football life. His latest project is with the Experience Camps for Grieving Children, kicking off what is sure to be a busy summer.
In an exclusive interview with CBSSports.com, Dorenbos answered our questions about his life, football career, and what lies ahead. He also explained why he likely would have opted out of the 2020 season, and much more.
Experience Camps for Grieving Children is your latest venture. Can you describe what it's about?
Dorenbos: "It's like a bereavement camp, so a camp for kids that have gone through tragedy or gone through things; it's an escape for them to be around, one, other kids that are experiencing the same thing and, two, counselors that can help them or help guide and find a sense of therapy for these kids to help them find peace."
Is your role as counselor, sponsor or something else?
Dorenbos: "I met the experience camp through the general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, Howie Roseman, and this is my first time being involved so I'm excited. What I'm doing is a show for all the kids virtually to tell my story, to show them some magic and basically say you're not alone. I've been through something similar and you can come out of it."
Your last project with the Philadelphia Eagles was "Goal To Go." Can you tell me what that was about and do you have any other segments with them coming up?
Dorenbos: "Originally the team contacted me for a segment that they called 'Goal To Go,' which usually lasted between four-to-seven minutes -- so I was like, 'Yea cool, come on!' Joe Elder and his guys came out and we did an interview and they wanted to do a little bit more so they came out a few times. They called back and the program was 45-to-48 minutes and they were really happy with it.
"People contact me about my story and if it's told in a gratuitous way, I'm not into it, but what I learned early on in my career was I've been through something rare -- and I've come out of it -- and there's a lot of people that experienced the exact same tragedy I did or something similar. If I can tell my story and impact those people or impact somebody who's grieving, who's looking to find forgiveness or just looking for a little sign of hope -- if telling my story helps, then I'm all for it.
"The Eagles told me we definitely have a reach and we would like to be part of that journey with you, so that's how the whole thing came about."
Have you heard back from anyone you've impacted over the years?
Dorenbos: "Absolutely. The organization would get calls and say, 'Hey, we have these two kids that experienced the same situation Dorenbos did.' Those few hours off for away games, I would sit and talk to those kids that experienced similar tragedies that I did. I never been so proud. There was a moment where I reflected on my own life and I would literally sit at a table and reflected on my 12-to-15-year-old self.
"To be able to look at these kids and say, 'Hey, I'm probably the one person you're going to meet that can relate to you and I'm happy. You can define success however you want, I define it as happiness. If you can find happiness, the money and everything else is going to come and you're going to enjoy the rise.
"I looked at them and said, 'I'm happy. I know you're in a really, really dark place and you can get out of it.' I would sit with these kids for hours and it was a proud moment to give hope to somebody."
How's retired NFL life treating you? I feel like we don't get to hear enough if players miss football.
Dorenbos: "One, it's amazing! Since my career ended with an open-heart surgery, it wasn't the ride off into the sunset I was hoping for after 14 years. I had a daughter and that's been absolutely amazing. I was fortunate enough to have a passion other than football that I turned into a career in being a corporate speaker."
How long were you planning on playing if you didn't weren't diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm?
Dorenbos: "So I signed a three-year extension by the time I was 37, and when I got traded (to the New Orleans Saints) I felt great. And when you get traded something happens to you mentally and you're like, OK, this team didn't want me and guess what, now I got to regroup myself. You just feel younger and I felt alive and I felt like I had to go to this organization and prove I can play like a 25-year-old again. I kind of felt a little spark in me as well.
"Who knows what would have happened. I might still be playing. Life went in a different direction for me, but also dealing with therapy as a kid it taught me to be OK with closure and being OK with moving on, being OK with something ending and another thing beginning.
"When my NFL career was over, I always told myself that the events that happen in my life -- don't become them, just enjoy them and everything is just a great story for my grandkid one day. It was a wild ride."
What was your reaction when you were diagnosed?
Dorenbos: "Oh, you're in total shock and all of a sudden you tell yourself this isn't real and then you get angry for a minute, then you get frustrated, then it's the 'why me,' but the sooner you can come out of that and be a person of vision, not circumstance, the better.
"Here's a cool little phrase that I tell myself: It's not happening to me, it's happening for me. That's just the way I approach things. So I call my wife, she's in Philly packing up to move. She got on a plane and came down and we basically re-evaluated our life."
Were you surprised when the Eagles traded you?
Dorenbos: "I really wasn't shocked. The writing was on the wall for me. I had a special teams coach that wanted to go in a different direction for a number of years and then you started looking in the direction what's going on around you and all of a sudden I wasn't starting in the games and practice, I was demoted to second string and sometimes third string. You pretty much see they are wanting to go in a different direction and you're just trying to figure out what his exit strategy is. It is what it is.
"The only frustration I had was I thought I was the best one available. I don't care about the money, I don't care about any of that stuff. To me, I was the guy for the job. And if you're a professional athlete and if you don't think that, you don't make it. It doesn't matter if you're going against the greatest player in the world, you still think you're better. I wasn't really shocked that's how things ended up.
Life as a long snapper in the NFL, it's a really interesting one. As a long snapper, how do you know if you're doing your job correctly or if your job is on the line?
Dorenbos: "Your job is on the line every day for a number of factors: consistency, productivity, culture, salary cap. There's a lot of factors, and what I realized early in my career is regardless whether you get cut or traded, sometimes it has no reflection on how good you are as a player. You can't let those things affect your confidence as a player, and there's some things you can't control. It is what it is, right?
"Life as a long snapper, I loved it. How did I know if I was doing my job? You turn on the film and if you're money, you're money -- and if you're not, you're probably not going to be playing very long."
When you were released by the Titans in 2006, did you think this would be the end of your career or that another team would call?
Dorenbos: I was kind of bouncing around. I filled in for Ken Amato, who had been hurt in 2005, and I filled in for a few games. Ken got healthy and he was on a multi-year deal. Well, Ken got hurt again and the Titans brought me back to fill in. When I got released again, my agent just told me, 'Hey man, there's going to be two-to-three long snappers every year go down. If you want to keep playing, stay in shape and you're probably going to get a call and if you don't, it's your choice.'
"I was just in a position where I worked out and didn't really stress about it. I just felt like a team would call, and if they won't, they won't. I just kind of continued performing and you know, living my life. I played football because I love it, not because it was everything to me.
"I loved it, I loved being around the guys and I loved competing. I loved working to be great, but because of that I felt like I didn't have the pressure of 'if I didn't make it, who am I?' I tried to make sure my identity was never football. If your identity is that, then you're done playing and I didn't want to go into that depressive state.
"I loved the competition, loved the camaraderie and I was fortunate enough to get a call by the Eagles in 2006 and played a lot longer than I thought I would."
It seemed like the entire Eagles organization embraced you from Day 1. What was different about them than other teams?
Dorenbos: "One was they had a need. Tennessee I was filling in for a guy and Buffalo, we had a coaching change and he brought his guy from Pittsburgh. So when I signed with Philly, Andy Reid came out -- and here's the deal -- Adam Johnson was a guy I kind of helped teach and worked with when I was in Buffalo, he was at the University of Buffalo at the time, and John Condo signed with the Oakland Raiders and played over 10 years and made a few Pro Bowls. It could have gone either way.
"Andy Reid came out and told me he got a call from Bob Stoll, who was the athletic director at UTEP when I was in college. He basically said, 'Dorenbos is your guy and he'll change your locker room for the good.' Now, Bob also gave Andy a big break in the college coaching world and hired Coach Reid at UTEP.
"I had an 'in' there and the next thing was just do your job. Andy told me 'You want to run, run. You want to lift, lift. If it's not there on Sunday, you're fired.' I said, 'Perfect, Coach. You and I are going to get along."
How did you feel when Andy Reid finally won that Super Bowl?
Dorenbos: "Dude, I cried. I still talk to Coach Reid, he lives about 40 minutes down the road from me in California. I'll FaceTime him and sometimes I don't even say hi. I just put my daughter on and he just laughs.
"I love the man. I would do anything for that guy. Probably my favorite coach I've ever played for. What's cool is everybody he's coached said it, you can ask anybody. We all we're so excited for him."
Did you see the same similarities in Eagles head coach Doug Pederson as you did with Andy Reid?
Dorenbos: "I like Doug. I was with Doug when Andy was there. People wonder why Nick Foles had success there. Well, Doug was a quarterback and Doug understands you only ask quarterbacks to do what they're good at. Don't put them in a position to not be successful. It's not so much what I think my scheme is, but what can my guy do and build the scheme around him.
"I love Doug and love his family. I was so happy he was able to win one as well. I thought it was so cool he was able to come back to Philly where he played and became a head coach and he's paid his dues too."
What was your favorite memory with the Eagles?
Dorenbos: "It's an unfair question. You're taking about 11.5 years to play for an organization that long, so the answer is every day. The person that the organization helped me become as an adult, the things that they taught me about resiliency and perseverance and how to deal with pressure, it's so much. They were a huge part of my life."
I thought the coolest story was when they handed you a Super Bowl ring (Dorenbos wasn't on the 2017 roster). That was the neatest thing the organization could ever do.
Dorenbos: "When I first got to Philly, my goal was to be the oldest guy on the team. Obviously one of my goals was to win a Super Bowl, but what if we win it and I never play again? I wanted to play, so I figured if I was the oldest guy on the team, I gave myself the most opportunities to have success. The guy writing the check didn't want anyone around all those years. These's nobody else they wanted here for 162 straight games. That's a huge compliment, right? You're talking about a huge lifestyle and huge culture that you helped build.
"So that's what they told me. You helped shape this building. How this whole thing went down (the trade to New Orleans) wasn't exactly what he planned and what you been through (open-heart surgery), you just deserve this.
"It was one of those moments I reflected. You ever hear a long snapper getting traded? I mean, I wasn't even drafted! The story I told myself was 'I'm worth more now than I was 15 years ago!' I was a long snapper that was traded for a draft pick to a contender with a quarterback like Drew Brees -- to a good team.
"Then I was given a Super Bowl ring by my previous team. It's unbelievable!"
What are your thoughts on the Eagles this year?
Dorenbos: "I think a team has a shot no matter what, but I haven't looked at the Eagles as a team this year because like everyone else -- with the coronavirus, are we going to have a season? It's just crazy what's going to happen because if I was playing this year with my heart condition, I probably wouldn't have played. I probably would have opted out. Nobody with my heart condition as tested positive that we are aware of, and I wouldn't want to be the first."
I wouldn't have blamed you if you did. I'm skeptical about going in the locker room as a media member.
Dorenbos: "You know what it is -- it's the fear of the unknown. People compare it to the flu. I know what the flu is and I know the remedies. I know if I go to the hospital with the flu that they're familiar (with the treatments and antibiotics). When you go to a hospital and you don't know what the answer is, that's scary.
"So when you talk about the team, you get wrapped up as a fan but you don't even know (if they'll play). What happens on Sunday if 10 players test positive? How do you field a team? What happens if your quarterback, running back, two receivers, your middle linebacker, safety and left tackle test positive? I'm not going to be that guy, but there's going to be a point can you even put a team out there? Can you play?
"What happens if all the quarterbacks test positive and you go into the game with no quarterbacks? What do you just put a wide receiver back there and just get destroyed or do you just say we're out? Nobody wants to throw the white towel, but if you throw a receiver back there (at quarterback) and now people are out of position -- isn't it smarter to take the loss and prevent injury?"
It's like the game you injured your wrist (against Washington in 2016) and your backups were hurt.
Dorenbos: "When you only suit up 46 guys for a game, you don't have a backup. I didn't have a backup. Here's where the value comes in. Let's say there's a second string tight end that's competing with another second, or third string tight end -- if you can get the ball back there, 99% of the time you are going to beat out that other tight end. Even if he is better than you at the position, if you get the ball back there on a punt, you're going to beat them out. You just showed an incredible value on game day.
"It not about 'get me through the season,' it's 'get me through this game.' If you can be a backup and get someone through the game, you increased your value tremendously."
You just seemed to be a natural on TV. Just watching you on "Ellen", "America's Got Talent", the Eagles segments. Have you considered a broadcasting career?
Dorenbos: "The answer is yes, but I think you leave everything on the table. Being in sports for 22 years straight, I enjoyed not being in it for a year or two. Just a change of scenery, which has been a challenge -- having new goals outside of the sports world.
"So when coronavirus happened, I just got booked to to be Jon Voight's predecessor in the 'Varsity Blues' series that was coming out. That was going to be a huge break for me. I had multiple shows booked. I have a deal with MGM and I was touring all the MGM properties and then I was speaking as well. The first two months of quarantine were going to be the busiest and most exciting two months of my career. We were going to film the 'Varsity Blues' in April.
"I've enjoyed just doing something different, and now that the quarantine has hit, it will be interesting to see what picks up and what doesn't. You got to rebuild that momentum and get the wave going again. It's a different world now and we'll see what happens."
Aren't they doing a movie based on your life?
Dorenbos: "(Film producer) Mike Tollin ('The Last Dance,' '30 for 30') picked it up. Play/Action Productions, which is (Eagles owner) Jeffrey Lurie's production company, they're involved, which is super exciting. Right now, we are interviewing a writer that is our top choice and he's beyond interested. Hopefully that deal gets done in the next couple of days."
What parts about football do you miss? What don't you miss?
Dorenbos: "This is probably rare, but I miss how I felt in my 20s. You're in the best shape of your life. You enjoy hitting and as you get older, the hitting gets a bit harder because you don't recover like you used to. But man, to be in the NFL in your 20s, you just feel unstoppable. It's a great feeling.
"I don't miss the hitting. I don't miss the surgeries. I was counting them up the other day. I couldn't even tell you how many injections I had. I had four hernias, a knee surgery, three wrist surgeries. I had a separated shoulder, a high ankle sprain. I don't miss hurting for 6-7 months. My elbows and wrists, they would hurt the whole year. I don't miss that.
"But I miss the guys. I miss my guy Donnie Jones! Playing with Donnie was probably the most fun I've had my entire career. You miss being a part of something so cool, so big."
Donnie Jones had one punt in the Super Bowl and he made it count!
Dorenbos: "If you want to put a long snapper and a punter in a box of productivity, he was worth every penny that game. Every time you go out there, you only got one shot. That might be your only shot, so you better do your job and be effective."
Once the year ends, I can't imagine what a player goes through whether you win the Super Bowl or not.
Dorenbos: "You know what it is, you're exhausted: mentally, physically, emotionally. Playing in the NFL is exhausting in every aspect, but it's fun. I'll tell you that it's fun. What a fun time.
"You're not wearing a suit and tie to work. You're wearing Nike shorts, Jordans, and a T-shirt. What more do you want!"
Did you start thinking you could play until you were 40?
Dorenbos: "I talked to some people with the Saints and they actually called (after surgery). I was like, 'What!' If I was in my 20s, I probably would have tried to come back. Nobody has played with what I have, the valve replacement. One of the questions was if you get hit really hard in the chest, what's going to happen?
"But when you're in your late 30s and you played 14 years, it's a lot harder to come back from that. I had a lot of things going on. I was able to sell out theaters, I had a tour, and I had a relationship in the TV world. You got a lot of momentum and a lot of publicity from the heart surgery. I didn't ask for it.
"If you're going to retire and you want to continue an entertainment career, that may be my sign that it was just time to move on and I did."
You and Ellen seemed to have developed a great friendship over the years. How did that all begin?
Dorenbos: "After I did 'America's Got Talent,' the show called and said, 'Hey, we want you to come on.' I went on and I was just different. As a magician, a lot of them are very structured and very methodical and very scripted. I just kind of went on and had a plan. We just had a great time and I executed the trick and I made it very fun for Ellen. They asked if I could come back and I was like, 'Heck yeah!'
"Just being different and connecting with Ellen and just doing tricks that came back to her and representing what she stood for and what the show stood for -- incorporating just being kind and giving a meaning to a trick -- we just vibed. They've been great to me."
Will we see you on Ellen's "Game of Games" any time soon?
Dorenbos: "You should! It would be a blast. Whether I was working or competing, I wouldn't care!"
Finally, how's your magic career going?
Dorenbos: "It's good. Obviously with the coronavirus, everything is on hold. I had a contract with MGM to do all the MGM properties. We were going to Cleveland, Detroit, D.C., Vegas, the Borgata (in Atlantic City) and we were going to do a tour. I love it, it's my passion and being on stage is what I love to do."