Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Paley Center for Media John Saunders

During three decades on ESPN and ABC, John Saunders became one of the nation's most respected and beloved sportscasters. In Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope, Saunders and co-author John U. Bacon reveal his troubled childhood, the traumatic brain injury he suffered in 2011 and the severe depression that nearly cost him his life. Saunders died suddenly on August 10, 2016, from an enlarged heart, diabetes and other complications. This book -- already a New York Times best seller -- is his ultimate act of generosity to help those who suffer from mental illness, and those who love them.

In the summer of 1967 I was 13 and my brother Bernie was 12, and our dad coached our Little League baseball team. In the championship game, with two innings to go, our team was cruising along with a 4-0 lead. I was pitching and, feeling a little cocky, I started to joke around on the mound. I struck out two, but then grooved one that a big kid knocked over the fence. 4-1.

Playing Hurt Cover

In the seventh and final inning, the first batter knocked a ground ball to my brother, who tossed him out. I struck out the next batter, but the catcher missed the ball and the batter stole first. We still had a 4-1 lead, though, so the next batter caught us by surprise when he bunted. We couldn't get anyone out on the play, so now we had runners on first and second, with only one out, and the tying run at the plate. The next batter crushed one to center field, but our guy made a great catch, saving the game, while the runners tagged up to advance.

But none of this stopped me from clowning around on the mound. My friends played along, but not Bernie. If he'd learned nothing else from me, it was how to keep his mouth shut, and avoid our dad's wrath.

I wasn't worried when I walked the bases loaded, even though that brought the winning run up to the plate. Then my father walked to the mound.

"Stop acting like a stupid idiot," he told me.

I just stared at him and said, "I can handle this."

From that exchange alone, I knew I'd be in trouble when we got home, but I remained defiant.

The next batter smashed a fastball into the left-center field gap, far out of reach, which cut our lead to 4-3, with men on second and third and two outs.

My father came to the mound. "See what acting like a jackass has accomplished?"

I didn't buckle, because there was nothing he could do to me on the mound.

"Wait and see," I told him, with more brass than brains. "I'll strike this guy out."

He walked back to the dugout, fuming.

First pitch, on the inside comer: called strike.

Second pitch: a swing and a miss. Strike two.

We were one strike away from winning the championship – or one single away from losing it.

Before the next pitch, Rick and my brother visited me on the mound. Rick and I started joking around, acting like the game was already over -- but not Bernie. My father glowered at me from the dugout, then came to the mound to chew me out again, firing his words through gritted teeth: "If we lose this game ... " he began. He didn't finish his sentence, because he didn't have to. We both knew what he meant.

John Saunders

With two strikes, two outs, and two men in scoring position, my next pitch broke so much it hit the dirt as the batter swung and missed. Strike three! Game over!

We were the Little League champs of our small town, but we felt like we'd won the World Series! We poured Seven-Up over each other, including Dad, who seemed as happy as I'd ever seen him. He looked over at me and smiled. His son had won the deciding game. Perhaps I'd been forgiven.

After the game, I sat in the car with him.

"How do you feel about your performance?" he asked. I knew he was referring to my behavior as much as my pitching.

"Dad, I'm sorry I almost lost us the game," I said. That was what he wanted to hear. And at the time, it seemed like it might be enough to satisfy him. Our team celebrated at the best pizza joint in town. I was having such a great time with the team that, as my father got up to leave, I asked if I could stay with my friends, and walk home later.

My dad actually agreed, so my buddies and I ate more pizza, then went to Rick's house, where we tossed a football around for an hour or so. It was probably the best day of my life – up to that point.

At about ten, I left Rick's house and got a ride home. When we pulled up in front of our house, I could see my father waiting in the kitchen. When I walked in, he didn't seem angry, but just gazed at me calmly.

"John, you helped win a championship," he said, "so I've got an idea for next season. Instead of playing third base when you're not pitching, I'd like you to play catcher. You've got a strong arm, and you could throw out runners trying to steal second," something few Little Leaguers could do.

John Saunders

When I wasn't pitching, I liked playing third, not catcher, but I was too tired to argue. It had been a great day, he hadn't brought up my hot-dogging, and I felt no need to push it. I mumbled my agreement, then headed for bed.

"Hold on," he said. "Let's toss the ball some before you go to bed."

This was the last thing I wanted to do, but I couldn't refuse him. We headed out into the backyard, lit by a single bulb attached to the house. I reached for my glove.

"You won't need that," my dad said.

He started out by lobbing the ball to me, soft enough for me to catch it barehanded. After a few throws, he paused, the ball gripped between his fingers. His expression turned cold, and he started throwing harder and harder. I caught every toss barehanded.

I knew he wanted me to quit, but my pride wouldn't let me. Seeing I was not backing down, he hauled back and threw it with everything he had. My dad was in his mid-thirties, still in good shape, and he could whip it. I was sure my bare hands would shatter. But I caught each burning pitch, tossing the ball back to him, and opened my hands for another.

Unsatisfied with my response, he started pitching the ball so it dropped a foot or so in front of me. I couldn't catch these pitches even if I had a glove. The first few I fought off with my hands, which started to sting. My knuckles began to swell and bleed, but I was determined not to give in. My father then went to a full wind-up, but kept bouncing his pitches off the ground, which hit me in my cheek, my nose, my throat. I took them all.

Finally, I stood up from my crouching catcher's position to leave. I'd made my point. I was tough, but I'd had enough.

Dick Vitale, John Saunders

He just stared at me. I knew from his glare that if I left, he'd follow me into my bedroom, close the door, and I'd be in for another beating. So I crouched back down to field more pitches, pitches that felt like punches. I could no longer catch any of them, but I was able to take most of them off my chest and keep them in front of me, like you're supposed to, until one pitch bounced up off my hand, and then hit me square in the mouth. I started bleeding.

We kept going. Finally, after a half-hour of "practice," he was satisfied that he had broken my spirit, and called off the lesson.

We walked back into the house. I didn't dare say a word, but he did. "You'll think twice," he said, "about ever showing me up again."

When I woke up the next morning, my pillow was covered in dried blood. I went to the bathroom to look in the mirror. My eye was swollen shut, and my mouth looked like I'd gone 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali.

When my brother walked past the open bathroom door, he saw me, stopped, and asked, "What happened?"

At this age, I still didn't want to paint our father as a bad guy, so I lied. "Rick and I were tossing the football around. One of his passes went through my hands and hit me."

I washed up as well as I could and went to the kitchen to have some cereal. My mom was sipping coffee at the table, but she stopped cold when she saw me. I could see the shock on her face, but she didn't say a word. She knew better, too.

When my father appeared, he laughed. "What's the matter with you?"

I didn't answer him. I didn't even look at him. I returned to my room, closed the door, and started to cry. My dad had turned the best day of my life into one of the worst. After a few minutes, my mother knocked on the door, came in, and sat on the bed.

 

"John, do you know why your father hits you?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said. "'Cause I'm a big-mouth who doesn't know how to be a good son."

She shook her head. "It's because his father used to do it to him." She told me his father used to knock him down, then kick him in the ribs with his steel-toed work boots.

This didn't help me understand my dad any better, or forgive myself, either, as perhaps she'd intended. No, my first thought was this: I will never have any children. Because if there was even the slightest possibility that I was going to do to my children what my father did to me, and his father had done to him, I could never live with myself.

If someone was going to break the cycle, it was going to be me.

Excerpted by permission from Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope by John Saunders with John U. Bacon. Copyright ©2017. Published by Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow John U. Bacon on Twitter @johnubacon.

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