Across Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, Jon Dorenbos ran out onto Lincoln Financial Field eight times to snap a football – five on field-goal attempts, one for an extra point and twice to punt.
He is a long snapper, one of the most specialized and unique jobs in the game, requiring whipping a football backward seven to 15 yards between your legs to a waiting teammate just as defenders attempt to plow through you or leap over you. Immediately after getting the snap off, long snappers turn into blockers and sometimes punt coverage tacklers.
In general, long snappers are known only when they screw up. On Sunday, Dorenbos didn’t screw up. He did his job without incident, the kind of reliability that has allowed him to be an NFL long snapper for 15 years now, including 11 seasons with the Eagles.
At 4:05 p.m. his quarterback, Carson Wentz, took a knee to allow the clock to run out on a 24-15 Philadelphia victory over the Atlanta Falcons. It was a good win over a quality opponent.
“It’s always fun when you beat a good team,” said Dorenbos.
The fun could only last so long for Dorenbos, though. This is but one job of his, the other a budding career that could actually make him more money, bring him more fame and generate even more cheering fans than a decade and a half in the NFL.
Players are told at an early age to plan for life after football, to find an outlet, a challenge and a purpose when it all goes away. None have done it quite like Dorenbos is attempting.
He’s a magician, and a talented one at that. He performs for crowds small and big, including the audience of “America’s Got Talent” where he finished third in the most recent season. It’s changed his life, not just currently, but perhaps forever depending on his ability to capitalize on the new-found attention.
The NFL is tough. Show business may be even tougher.
So there the 36-year-old was Sunday, as the locker room celebration wore down, turning his focus to his second job – in this case using the 40 or so hours between the end of the game and the first meeting of next week to be Jon Dorenbos the Magician.
In this case, that means scurrying to Hollywood where he is now a recurring guest on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
At 6 p.m., showered, changed and packed, he and his fianceé and business partner, Annalise Dale, left the stadium. They checked in on some out-of-town friends at a nearby restaurant and then headed to the Philadelphia airport, arriving at 7. They boarded an American Airlines jet to Los Angeles, landed just after midnight, got to the hotel at 1 and, well, slept.
They arrived at the Ellen studios Monday at noon, retiring to Dressing Room 3. Rehearsal was at noon. The show taped through 4 p.m. Dorenbos was able to visit with former football player turned Hollywood star, The Rock, who was also on the show and serves as a post-football career role model.
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) November 15, 2016
There was time for a quick dinner with friends at the Smoke House, the old-school steak house in Burbank near the studios. Then it was back to LAX for a 10:30 p.m. overnight redeye to Philly. They landed at 6 a.m., Jon drove Annalise home and then reported early to the Eagles facility. The first meeting was at 8:30 a.m.
So, how was your day off?
He told only two fellow players and one person from the team (which is supportive of all of this) where he was going. Unless they watched Ellen on Tuesday, when his taping aired, he’s not sure if anyone else even knows.
“After the meeting, we had workouts, then practice,” Dorenbos told Yahoo Sports Tuesday night, when the whirlwind was over.
Then home for some rest?
“Then Tuesday night I had an appearance for the official radio station for the Eagles.”
“We sleep on the plane,” he joked.
Dorenbos grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, a somewhat idyllic existence that was shattered at age 12 when his father Alan murdered his mother Kathy in an act of domestic violence. Alan was later sentenced to prison, leaving Dorenbos without either parent and in a state of loneliness and apprehension over whom to trust.
He wound up living with extended family but to fight off depression became enthralled with magic. The repetition of the tricks, the endless dexterity drills and the solitude of solving the task at hand allowed him to mentally block out the hardship around him. It was a sanctuary that allowed him to thrive through unimaginable challenges.
“When I found magic,” he said, “I found myself.”
He also found he was extremely skilled at it, aided by the fact he practiced for years before ever really performing. To this day, he says, he can impress even fellow professionals with some of his handiwork. Like long snapping, it’s all in the fundamentals.
Magic was but one outlet, though. Sports were another. He played in high school and junior college as a so-so linebacker who occasionally long snapped, a specialized skill, on the side. Realizing he wasn’t exactly overrun by Division I scouts offering scholarships, Dorenbos decided to turn to illusion and put together a scouting video where he meshed together himself and two other players from his team into one. Suddenly he was a hard-hitting defensive player, a swift athlete and a gifted long snapper, at least on tape.
“Those old VCR tapes, no one could tell,” Dorenbos said. “I was watching tape and I’d think I made the tackle but then I realized it wasn’t me. I figured, if I couldn’t tell, no one could.”
It was ridiculous and deceptive but it worked. UTEP coach Gary Nord was impressed enough to inquire. Dorenbos’ junior college coach went along with it, saying, yes, he could long snap. Next thing you know, he was headed to El Paso to play the position, even if he wasn’t really that good at it. His greatest sleight of hand earned him a scholarship.
“I figured I could teach myself,” Dorenbos said.
He was correct. By the time he was a senior, he was on the NFL’s radar for his combination of accuracy and a quick release. He wound up with the Buffalo Bills, then Tennessee and finally, in 2006, Philadelphia. He hasn’t missed a game since. It’s an amazing career.
Dorenbos also never stopped performing magic, first for friends and teammates and then eventually in local shows and corporate appearances in front of small groups of 10 or less. His focus was still football, though, so it was a career that wasn’t managed well. But it had potential.
Then two years ago a friend introduced him to Annalise. She had a management background in the casino industry and understood both shows and show business. They got engaged recently. She saw the marketing potential – a football-playing magician? Everything has changed.
“I’ll give a lot of credit to my fiancée,” Dorenbos said. “She has a great skill set. She kind of came in and took over my unorganized career.”
No decision was bigger than trying out for “America’s Got Talent” and doing it with the Eagles’ permission, even if that meant balancing training camp with the later rounds of the show. Every week he’d hustle to the West Coast for taping. Tens of millions tuned in and became fans … of his magic, of his life story, of his relentlessly positive attitude.
“One of the perceived obstacles for me during AGT was, you don’t have that much time to plan stuff and rehearse and go over and over and over,” Dorenbos said. “On the show I did a big trick where we snapped footballs all over a map and we predicted where the judges’ [footballs] would land. And that was the first time I ever did that trick.
“The advantage for me was just that. I didn’t have time to overthink anything,” he continued. “I didn’t have time to be my own worst enemy. Instead I was going to practice and thinking about winning a football game. And then I would go perform.”
Week after week he kept coming back. Week after week the anonymous NFL specialist was no longer anonymous.
“We didn’t realize how many people watch the show,” Dorenbos said.
That included Hollywood folks who saw the potential for something a lot bigger than just a one-off reality-show contestant.
Long snapping requires hours and hours of lonely, repetitious training, getting the precise form down so that in the middle of chaos and uncertainty, you can deliver. It’s the same with magic. Tricks regularly break bad on a magician, he says, the key is knowing how to make it look like it is working fine. The real trouble starts, he says, when you start to overanalyze things.
“Really for any specialist, our best friend and our worst enemy is our own mind,” he said.
Snap the ball. Do the trick. Same deal.
“You just go and react,” he said.
While trying to win” America’s Got Talent” was stressful, Dorenbos said, it was nothing compared to playing football. If he blew it on the show, he knew he would lose but it would be he and he alone that would bear that loss. Blow a critical snap in football and 52 teammates, an entire coaching and support staff that have worked relentlessly are also let down. When you’re only on the field for six to 10 plays a game, each one takes on added significance.
“It’s the worst,” he said.
He isn’t the first NFL player to eye a future in entertainment – from Michael Strahan to the old days of Jim Brown and Bubba Smith. No one can recall anyone trying magic, though. Whether that means Dorenbos one day pursues a touring show, or a Las Vegas set-up or something on television is anyone’s guess.
“I love television,” he said. “I love hosting. So that’s an avenue we are pursuing. Obviously I love magic and I love performing and so we’re kind of diving into some ideas there as far as having a show. And I also love playing football.”
The football, he reminds, is the priority. Fifteen seasons into this he’s as strong as ever. He isn’t cheating the game or his teammates. He knows football will end someday, but he believes someday is still a long way off. His No. 1 goal right now is reaching the playoffs.
“A lot of people said I couldn’t do it. I needed to quit football and do AGT or quit AGT and just concentrate on football,” Dorenbos said. “And yet somehow we found a way. I had support from both sides, from NBC and the Eagles, and we made it work. When the day comes and I have to make a decision, I’ll make one. Until then I’ll try to do as many things as I can.”
It makes for quite an off day. Just don’t call it a challenge.
“I never once looked at it as what are the challenges [of trying to do both],” he said. “I’m a guy who is always going to take the positive out of things. So I don’t see any challenges. Literally zero. I just see the opportunities.”
Beating Seattle is next.
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