Dorenbos was in the winning locker room the night the Eagles captured their first Vince Lombardi Trophy in February 2018, though not in the capacity he had envisioned. Still recovering from life-saving heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, a condition that was discovered shortly after he was traded to the New Orleans Saints the previous September (which ended his football career), he was invited to join his former teammates in Minneapolis for the Super Bowl festivities by Eagles chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie.
The long-snapper, now 39, was later presented with a players championship ring — another sign of the respect he earned during his 11 seasons in Philadelphia.
Dorenbos has been busy since the previous Eagles-Patriots matchup. On top of career as a magician, Dorenbos has written a book called “Life is Magic,” which details his extraordinary journey, including how football and magic helped him through tragedy after his father, Alan, murdered his mother, Kathy, when he was 12 years old (Aug. 2, 1992).
He opened up to ESPN about his life experiences, including sitting down with his dad earlier this year — for the first time since his mother’s death. This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.
There’s so much to document, Jon, in your journey. If I had to ask you the most extraordinary thing that happened to you, what would you say?
“Sitting down with my dad a few weeks before my daughter was born. Having lunch with him for about 5½ hours and then forgiving him in the moment I was about to become a father. Of all the things, that was pretty intense and life-changing.”
How did it change things?
“It was the idea of having closure in my past life, having peace, and it was taking the worst thing that has ever happened to me and trying to find some sort of silver lining. That good was basically me reliving that relationship and those emotions from what had happened when I was a kid, and looking at my dad and realizing all the things we missed out on, the things that should have been that weren’t, and finding motivation within that. Realizing the dad I wanted to be, realizing how I could do it differently than what my dad did, and being there for my daughter in ways he wasn’t there for me. That was pretty powerful.”
Where did you have that lunch, and what were the circumstances around that?
“Spokane, Washington. I had a [magic] show in Canada, in Calgary, and I was actually going to [Las] Vegas, and it just so happened that I could stop in Spokane, so I reached out to him and said, ‘Hey, it’s been a long time. I don’t want anything from you, don’t have any expectations, but if you’d like to meet and grab lunch or something and talk, let me know.’ And he said he’d love to. He was living outside Spokane, and so I stopped on the way to Vegas and we sat and talked for about 5½ hours.”
How long had he been out of jail by that point?
“He had actually been out longer than he was in. He went in in 1992 and was released in 2004.”
Alan Dorenbos served 11 years of a 13-year sentence for second-degree murder of his wife, Kathy, before being released from a Washington state penitentiary.
Did you get any further clarity on why what happened, happened?
“Interesting question. I had no idea what to expect. I kept my expectations to a minimum. But I realized that my journey going to see him had nothing to do with validation from him. I didn’t need answers or reasons.
“I’m going to take you way back. So, I’m now 12 years old. My sister [Kristina] and I are in the most intense therapy you can imagine. One of the things our therapist wanted us to do was see the autopsy photos of my mom. And everyone thought [the therapist] was crazy. Sure enough, during the trial they angled the photos so only the jurors could see them. My therapist went back to court and he got a private court order for my sister and I to have a private viewing of autopsy photos and we became the first minors to have a court order to do so. We went to the district attorney’s office, and I’ll never forget this: She came in and put the folder on the table and she looked at the therapist and was like, ‘I just don’t understand why you’re doing this to these children. I don’t get it,’ and she left.
“The therapist stands up and looks at my sister and I, and he goes: ‘Everybody thinks I’m crazy because I want you guys to see these pictures. But the reality is I don’t care whether you look at them or not, but why should it be anybody else’s decision but yours? It’s your life. But I’ll tell you this: Even though it’s not a very popular thing right now to think about, you might want to see your dad one day. If you look at these pictures, the reason you might want to see your dad one day is going to be for reasons other than what happened, because this right here? This is what happened.’ So he leaves, and I looked at the pictures. And I never thought about them until, sure enough, I’m about to become a dad and I reached out to him, and I realized I’m reaching out to him for other reasons than wanting to know what happened.
“What he said is less important than what came out of that lunch. … Don’t debate him. Don’t argue with him. It’s not about him. … I would ask him, ‘Hey, what happened?’ And then, nothing really, he kind of dodged [it]. And then I would pull back, too, and say, that’s not why I’m here. Stay on course. And so, sure enough, I said, ‘Hey, I forgive you for being lost. I forgive you for making a mistake. Both of which I have made many. And I’m out.’ There really wasn’t much said of substance in that conversation. It was basically two strangers meeting. It was super intense. At times it was awkward. But I just needed to say three words out loud and that’s, ‘I forgive you.'”
“Just because I forgive my dad, it doesn’t mean I agree with what he did. It doesn’t mean I’m OK with what he did, but what it means is I’m at peace with what he did. I can’t change it.
“I had two choices: You either fall off the edge of the cliff and everyone in the world makes excuses for you and say, ‘If you would have known what he went through as a kid, you’d understand why he is that way.’ I’m not going to be that guy. Instead, I want people to see my last name and think of something other than what my dad did and bring pride to my name and bring pride to the world that my little girl is going to be in.
“This idea of having lunch with my dad was pretty deep. I was 13 years old when I moved to California and I was just becoming a teenager and it’s kind of the age your dad’s going to show you how to be an adult, right? I never got to have lunch with my dad in, like, an adult setting. When my daughter was born, that was the first thing that I told her: ‘You’ll forever be able to have lunch with your daddy, and you’ll never look at me the way I looked at mine.’ “
Take me into that moment of meeting your dad.
“We met at the Safari Room in Spokane. There was other people there. It was around lunchtime. It’s funny, if you would have walked by our table, you probably would have thought, ‘There’s a father and a son having lunch just like they probably do every Tuesday.’ It was quite the opposite.”
Who got there first?
“I got there first. As soon he walked in, I recognized him. I knew he was up in the Washington area, and for years, every time we’d play the Seattle Seahawks, I’d look around. I wasn’t expecting to see him, but I was just wondering like, ‘My God, what if I saw my dad here? Would I recognize him? What would I feel? What would happen?’ And obviously I never did, but I definitely recognized him. He walked up to me and said, ‘Man, you got big.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Man, you got old.’ He’s 70 now, you know.”
When people have a high degree of ambition to reach the top of their profession, as you have done now with multiple careers, there’s often a driving force. What is yours?
“A deep sense of pride. When I was with teams, that became my family. … I always wanted people to see my last name and just know they can count on me. … If I showed up every day and worked hard and I executed and I came through and I got the job done, then maybe the people who took a chance on me, maybe when it wasn’t popular — I was too small, too slow, whatever it was — that the people that took a chance on me would snicker at the rest of the world and say, ‘Holy cow, I made the right pick.’ When [former Eagles coach] Andy Reid would walk by me and I’d play through torn ligaments or hernias or whatever it was, and just give me the head nod — the head nod to me is the ultimate sign of respect in any field.”
The time around when you were traded from the Eagles to Saints was a defining point — you almost lost your life. Tell me about the emotions going on as you discover you have something wrong with you.
“[Eagles general manager] Howie Roseman came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to trade you or do something here.’ I think he thought I was going to be upset. But I took a second and I just took a deep breath and I realized, ‘What do I have to be angry about?’ This organization gave me 11½ years. Way longer than the average player in the league. The memories, the people. It is what it is. This is my reality. And so I kind of stepped back and I actually was like, ‘Wait, what did you say?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, we got offers for a trade for you.’ And the first thing I told Howie was: ‘Wait, has there ever been a long-snapper that’s been traded?’ And I think he was kind of taken back, and he goes, ‘I don’t think so.’ And I was like, ‘What are they willing to trade for?’ He said, ‘They’re willing to trade a draft pick.’ I go, ‘Holy s—. We’re breaking records here.’ [Long-snappers] get cut. We don’t get traded for. I was like, ‘You know what, man, if it’s my time, it’s my time. … We basically shook hands and parted ways.
“I go down to New Orleans, I play in a game, I take a physical, and that’s when they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to send you on down to the hospital and take some tests.’ Well, now I’m going back to the locker room, we’re about to get ready for practice and the cardiologist called me and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know how to tell you this but you’re never playing football ever again, and you’re going to be in emergency open-heart surgery probably within the next 48 hours. I said, ‘What? Excuse me?’ I was 37 years old at the time, I had just been traded, I had a three-year extension for more money than I ever signed for, and like, I’m playing with Drew Brees and it was a new challenge I was excited about.
“Your initial reaction is to play the victim card. You get upset. You think about all the hard work it took me for this career, the relationships, and I actually had this overwhelming feeling that I was letting the Saints down, which ultimately is what kind of drove me and inspired me to be who I am — is to show up for the guy that hired you and make sure when they look back that’s there’s nobody else that they would have wanted. … And the team was amazing. [Saints coach] Sean Payton was like, ‘Hey, man, I’m happy we saved your life.’
“I found out that I had a severely leaky valve, which means a lot of my blood that was supposed to leave my heart was leaking back into my heart, so my heart got way too big, my resting heart rate was way too high for a long, long time. And then the aorta, which is the vein that leaves the heart, had an aneurysm. It basically means where the aorta met the heart it started to blow up like a water balloon. And if that thing pops like a water balloon, you’re dead instantly. It should be about the size of a dime or a nickel. Mine had reached the size of a Coke can. It was huge.
“There was the moment of, you start feeling bad, and then I realized I just had to change the story. I remember that I signed with the Eagles and my mom’s best friend, Leslie Moore, sang ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ at her funeral. And I just had a moment kind of remembering, ‘Hey, I was an Eagle.’ And had the wind beneath my wings for a long time. And the moment I started to feel bad, I saw Drew Brees and I saw the last name ‘Brees,’ and so sure enough I was like, ‘Man, this was just a sign that I needed to step out of the wind and catch a breeze,’ and I was traded to New Orleans to have my life saved by a Saint. Are you kidding me?”
“No time for pity parties. We talked to surgeons all over the world — every one of them had been taught by Joseph Bavaria, who happened to be at the University of Penn, and so we flew back to Philadelphia. The surgery was expected to be between four and six hours. It ended up being just under 11.
“I was in the hospital for about a month post-surgery. I don’t think the magnitude of it hit me until about a week after surgery and you have tubes sticking out of your stomach. Literally all day you’re looking down at these tubes that are coming out of your stomach and you just see fluid draining. When they pulled those tubes out, that to me was like this emotional. … It was basically like the moment where I felt like, ‘We did it. I was going to be OK. I made it. Life’s OK. We’re alive.’ When they pulled those tubes out, I’m not kidding you, I cried every day for probably nine months. The first football game I watched that entire season was the NFC championship [between the Eagles and Vikings].
“I remember thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ They trade me, now they go back to the Super Bowl? Are you serious? Unbelievable. My wife looks at me and could see that I was kind of sad, and I’ll never forget, she puts her arm around me and gives me a little kiss and says, ‘Honey, if you play, you die. And I think you’d rather be alive.’ … And as I was walking home from my neighbor’s house, I literally had this overwhelming joy. … I was like, ‘Man, my buddies are going to the Super Bowl. This is sick.’ Then the team called and said, ‘Hey, you’re coming with us.’ And I’m like, goddang, are you kidding me?
“The night before the [Super Bowl], I went to Jeff’s party and he came up to my wife and I. … He gave me a light hug and he said, ‘Hey, we’re going to win this, and when we do, I’m going to give you a players ring. You deserve it.’ Sure enough, what happens, they win. They call me, I go down to the facility and Jeff says, ‘This ring represents living. The Super Bowl for you is much more than a game, kid. You helped change the culture here and you helped build this building to get us to where we are. You’re an Eagle for life and I appreciate everything you did here, and I hope every time you look at this ring you remember how thankful it is just to be alive.’
“That was emotional for me not because of the ring, but because the man that hired me looked back and out of all the people that he could have had, he said there’s nobody else I would have wanted here but Dorenbos.”