First Came Magic
Jon Dorenbos recounts how football and magic saved his life

Nicknamed “Magic Man” when he was a Philadelphia Eagle, Jon Dorenbos turned his passion for the illusionary arts into a thriving second career. Life after football is indeed magic, with sold-out nationwide performances, TV appearances and a precious new baby girl. But, Dorenbos will tell you, it wasn’t always so great.

In the introduction below of his newly released memoir, “Life is Magic,” Dorenbos describes how football and magic helped him heal from unimaginable tragedy.



Today, when I think of myself at twelve, I think of a shy, wounded, embarrassed kid. Everywhere I went, I felt I was wearing a sign that blared MY DAD KILLED MY MOM. There was so much I didn’t know then. Like how much magic, football and forgiveness would save me.

Magic came first: I’d lose myself all day, every day, in the intricacies of sleight of hand. Looking back on it now, after years of intense therapy and soul-searching, it makes total sense, right? If you’re living a day-to-day life right out of “The Brady Bunch” only to find on one summer day a month after your twelfth birthday that your dad – president of your Little League, your hero – has killed your mom…well, you’d be drawn to losing yourself in something that could play with your set of circumstances, too: You mean I can alter this reality?

Magic became my escape, but football is where I honed my resilience. Every scouting report I ever got, the guy across from me was faster, bigger, stronger. Sports scientists would tell me my knee-to-ankle ratio was off and my hands were too small. Dude, screw that noise. The one thing that can’t be measured is what burns inside of you. I learned early on that when life is kicking me down, there’s a flame inside of me that stands me back up. I testified against my dad and had to look at the autopsy photos of my mom…do you think anything in life will ever be harder than that? Some slobbering dude in a helmet across the line of scrimmage? When you’ve gotten the hardest stuff out of the way when you’re twelve, all else is a friggin’ piece of cake.

I never wanted to write a book. I don’t want to come off like I think I have all the answers. But thanks to some of the very smart, kind people you’ll meet in these pages, I realized that you don’t need to have everything figured out. The real “answer” lies in the process of self-discovery.

When stuff happens to you, you can shut down. You can wallow. You can harbor resentments. You can let it eat you up inside. When one day you’re a professional athlete heading into your fifteenth season in the NFL and the next you’re being told that you need emergency open-heart surgery, that if you play in your next game there is a more than 50 percent chance you’ll die on the field…well, you can look skyward and scream, “Why me?”

Or you can be thankful that your undiagnosed ticking-time-bomb heart condition – the same that killed John Ritter and Alan Thicke – was discovered in time. You can feel grateful and pledge to live each moment fully aware of how precious it is. Ever since hearing that diagnosis and having that surgery, I like to stop and say it out loud: “I’m alive, baby.”

When you start looking at yourself, when you start digging deep, when you start talking to yourself instead of listening to yourself, you start to realize that the more we can share with each other, the more we can realize we’re not alone. My journals throughout the years examine every feeling I was feeling, even when they were painful to look at. What I was doing every time I feverishly jumped into bed and scrawled my insights into those journals, I realize now, was cultivating empathy. The more you inspect your own feelings, the more you start to realize all the stuff that so many other people go through, too. Life is really hard and there are a few things that are guaranteed: you’re born, sh**’s going to be thrown at you, and you’re going to die. So how can we fill all that other space up with joy and happiness? And not resent the world?
By changing our attitude about what happens to us. In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” his moving account of life in a World War II concentration camp, psychologist Viktor Frankl writes that “when we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves.” He cites a case study of a patient who was battling depression after his beloved wife had died two years earlier:

“‘What would have happened if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?’” [Frankl asked]. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!’ Whereupon I replied, ‘You see, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her’…I could not revive his wife. But in that moment I did succeed in changing his attitude toward an unalterable fate inasmuch as from that time on he could at least see a meaning in his suffering.”

Rock on, Viktor Frankl. He wrote that our main concern is neither the pursuit of pleasure nor the avoidance of pain, but rather to find meaning in life. The dude spent years in a concentration camp and concluded that “man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.”

That’s what this book is about. It’s about finding meaning, in both the tragic and the everyday; it’s about how to learn resilience, against all the odds; it’s about looking in the mirror and refusing to see a victim staring back at you; it’s about disregarding the doubts of naysayers…and shutting up the self-doubt each of us secretly hears every day; it’s about thinking of forgiveness as an act that sets you free from bitterness and resentment; and it’s about how to ultimately build a life, when, arguably, the worst thing that can happen to you happens when you’re twelve years old.

Excerpted from “Life is Magic” by Jon Dorenbos. © 2019 by Jon Dorenbos. Excerpted with permission by Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

December 2019
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