Thursday, October 05, 2017

Review: Playing Hurt by John Saunders, with John U. Bacon

On Saturday, I got the call: My dad had collapsed at a restaurant, and he was on his way to the hospital. He was fine - no heart attack, he just fainted for an unknown reason. But as I sit down to write this review, I can't help but think of Playing Hurt through that lens.

I always thought of John Saunders as one of the best in sports broadcasting. He was a pro, a steadying presence, and always welcome on my TV screen. I knew he'd briefly been on the hockey teams at Michigan and at Western, but I had no clue about so much of his life. This book is deeply honest and revealing, and much of the focus is on how the turmoil in his early life led him to dark, despairing places. How suicidal ideation was always a threat, and how the disease of depression impacts your life and your loved ones.

John paints a vivid picture of how depression works as a chronic disease: How it ebbs and flows, creeping up to knock you down, but how it can be managed with a good therapist, the right combination of medications, and figuring out how to build in processes to minimize its triggers. He also shows how sometimes that doesn't matter.

Before I started this book, I only vaguely remembered that John had been sidelined at ESPN due to a medical issue. I completely forgot that he had collapsed at work. He wasn't as lucky as my dad. John hit his head, giving him a traumatic brain injury (I completely agree with John that calling those things "concussions" minimizes how severe these can be). The aftermath was severe, forcing him to learn how to walk again. And like many TBI sufferers, it threw his emotional controls out of whack. Everything was on a knife edge, and small things could flare his depression to dangerous levels. The episode he recounts on the Tappan-Zee Bridge is nothing short of harrowing. I'm lucky: my dad didn't hit his head. He was talking with our long-time dentist when it happened, and he lowered him to the floor. I've been thinking about what the road ahead could have looked like.

Of course, John Saunders is gone now. He had a heart attack due to complications from his Type 1 diabetes. I wish he'd had more time with his family, and if we got some of it, we'd all be the better for it. I'm glad John U. Bacon got a chance to finish this book to add to Saunders' legacy. Playing Hurt is a compelling read, and it's well worth your time.

Note: Da Capo Press provided a copy of Playing Hurt for this review.

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