Unless you are a sports fan, you probably never heard of John Saunders. And that was fine with him. He was that rarity among celebrities; he had no ego, and he liked to fly under the radar. And, most significantly, he had the undying love and respect of his colleagues and bosses. Listen to some of the tributes that have come pouring in so far from friends, colleagues and ESPN executives:
- Dick Vitale – “John Saunders represented everything that was good in a human being.”
- Chris Mortensen – “We all loved him dearly. … Can’t replace the man.”
- Jemele Hill (Co-host with Saunders of “His and Hers”) – “John Saunders was a better person than a host.”
- John Skipper (president of ESPN) – “John was an extraordinary talent. …He was one of the most significant and influential members of the ESPN family as a colleague and mentor…”
- John Feinstein, noted sports commentator and author, summed it up best: “John Saunders showed how good he was by not telling anyone about it.”
John Peterson Saunders was born in Ajax, Ontario, Canada on February 2, 1955. Naturally, as a Canadian, he grew up playing hockey, and, throughout his life as a sportscaster, commentator and journalist, it remained his first love. John excelled enough at the sport to play varsity hockey at Western Michigan University from 1974-1976.
After graduation, he worked in news and sports at various local tv stations in Ontario and New Brunswick. Then, in 1980 he became the primary sports anchor for CITY-TV in Toronto. From there, he moved to the US. First, he worked for WMAR-TV in Baltimore, and then, came the big move to ESPN in 1986.
During his tenure at ESPN John proved to be among the most versatile sports announcers, anchors, hosts, commentators, and personalities in the business. He excelled at various jobs in various sports. For example, he did NBA play-by-play, studio hosting for the NHL and MLB, and he anchored the 1995 World Series. Most significantly, he replaced the late Dick Schaap, another long-time sports icon, as host of The Sports Reporters, a popular weekly sports talk show on ESPN. He made it a seamless transition. His main task was to moderate among four renowned and somewhat egotistical and contentious sports journalists who appeared as guests on the show. He did it superbly.
However, perhaps, his most significant contribution was his work for the “V Foundation,” named after Jim Valvano, famed coach and sports commentator, who had died from bone cancer in 1993. John had become a close friend of Valvano’s, and in the 23 years since Jim’s death he had worked tirelessly on behalf of the Foundation (below the radar, of course).
I was a big fan of John’s work in general, and The Sports Reporters, in particular. In my opinion, he was one of the best at being the “glue” of the show.
Being without ego, he would be content to stay in the background and let his co-commentators and analysts be the stars. He would lob “softball” questions at them and make their jobs easier, sort of like a point guard who sets up the scorer for an easy shot. That was a main reason why his numerous friends and colleagues loved him and loved working with him.
Rest in peace John. You will be sorely missed.