While at the NABJ-NAHJ (National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists) conference in Washington, D.C. last week, I was hoping to shake hands and grab a few minutes with one of my role models, longtime ESPN anchor, analyst and commentator John Saunders, who was in attendance.
I wasn't able to cross paths with him, but figured I would one day soon.
Saunders sat down last year for an interview and participated in a documentary project that I'm helping to produce. The director of the film invited me to ride with him up to Bristol, Connecticut to help conduct the Q&A with him, along with some others that we had scheduled at ESPN headquarters.
With prior commitments and writing deadlines weighing me down, I couldn't make the trip. Now, I'm even more disappointed that I didn't go, sitting here trying to process the very sad news that Saunders passed away today at the age of 61.
ESPN President John Skipper said: “John was an extraordinary talent and his friendly, informative style has been a warm welcome to sports fans for decades. His wide range of accomplishments across numerous sports and championship events is among the most impressive this industry has ever seen. More importantly, John was a beloved and devoted family man who cared deeply about people and causes, as evidenced by his long-standing efforts as a passionate board member for The V Foundation for Cancer Research. He was one of the most significant and influential members of the ESPN family, as a colleague and mentor, and he will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this extremely difficult time.”
Former President and Executive Chairman, ESPN, Inc., George Bodenheimer said: “John contributed greatly to building ESPN and always represented the company with class and dignity. As a founding board member of The V Foundation he played a critical role in helping so many others through this important cause. We will miss John’s friendship and spirit and extend our best wishes to his family.”
John Saunders as a defenseman on the Western Michigan University hockey team, mid-1970s. pic.twitter.com/wmBGV0xSjE— Sports Paper (@SportsPaperInfo) August 10, 2016
Saunders, a native of Canada, was a talented hockey defenseman while growing up in Montreal's junior leagues. He earned an athletic scholarship and played for Western Michigan University from 1974 to 1976 and then for Ryerson Polytechnical in Toronto where he earned all-star status in the Ontario University Athletic Association
Sanders spent 30 years at ESPN, where he hosted The Sports Reporters for the past 15 years.
One of the company's most tenured commentators, Saunders did more than simply host studio shows and provide color commentary across a wide spectrum of sports. A close friend of the late college basketball coach Jim Valvano, he was also a founding member and served on the board of directors for The V Foundation for Cancer Research, and was actively involved in many of the organization’s fundraising events and initiatives.
And beyond that, he was a shining example for journalists everywhere. While always being cognizant of race within the larger sports in society discussion, he embodied the latent power within our own voices and telling stories from our own unique perspectives, epitomizing the essence and excellence that we strive for at The Shadow League.
"John's talent and professionalism exemplified the absolute best in sports," said The Shadow's League's Founder and CEO Keith Clinkscales. "His approach to storytelling and the powerful voice that sports has within the greater athletic and societal narrative, epitomizes the pursuit of greatness in sports."
"As his former colleague at ESPN, I'm beyond saddened at the news of his passing. He will forever remain a symbol for the determination, insight and class that journalists of all colors should aspire to attain."