Q&A: Evening of Stars speaker Jon Dorenbos on magic, tragedy and forgiveness
The magician who is set to perform at the Red Cross Evening of Stars event on Wednesday plans to do a lot more than card tricks. Jon Dorenbos says the world doesn't need another David Copperfield or David Blaine.
Dorenbos also is a comic and former pro football player. He plans to share lessons he's learned from his own life. That life story is complicated.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Dorenbos: I was 12 years old, and my father murdered my mother. And there was a huge transition there. My sister and I went to temporary foster care, went into intense therapy for about eight, nine months. In that transition, I saw a magician named Michael Gross, who was 16 years old, who was a friend of a friend, he did a trick. Then he bought me a magic book, and I started learning.
For me, shuffling cards was an outlet, you know, it wasn't so much about I want to be a magician, it was, this is my outlet. When I hear the sound of a ruffle (of cards), the world quiets. I'm just a kid, and it didn't matter where I went, I could forget about all the adult issues, losing my mom, my dad going to prison, the foster care moving and all this change. At a young age, man, I shuffled cards and heard the rest of the world quiet.
WGLT: You had reconnected with your father a few years ago. What was that? What did you want to tell him?
Dorenbos: Super intense is what it was like. I hadn't seen him in 27 years. My wife was about eight months pregnant, we're about to have our first daughter. There were three words in my life, I'd never said out loud, and I'd never said ‘I forgive you’ out loud. My life's journey and magic helped me discover it was the moment that I wanted to go forgive my dad, so that I could be a better dad, my daughter didn't ask to be in this world, my wife and I brought her into this world. It's my job.
It's my responsibility to be everything for her that I can be. I learned that for me, forgiveness wasn't about winning and losing, it wasn't about let's go be buddies. It wasn't, I'm okay with what you did. For me, forgiving my dad for what he did was symbolic of me taking the first step in my life, where somebody who is no longer in my life is going to affect my life. And it was me saying I'm okay with who I am. I'm okay with where I'm from. And it's me saying that I'm not going to let my past be an excuse for me failing in the future. And I'm going to be every bit of a dad that I never had.
How did your father take that?
Dorenbos: I don't think he was expecting to hear me say, I forgive you for being really, really lost. And I forgive you for making a really, really big mistake. He just kind of we sat and had lunch for about five and a half hours and talked about all different things. I had every emotion you could possibly imagine. But at the end of the day, I knew I was there.
For me. It wasn't about engaging with them. It wasn't about getting answers. It wasn't about getting validation, because I didn't know who he was or what he was going to say. To try to get answers from them, and battle back and forth. What was that going to do for me? Nothing. I just went there to say those words, whatever happened happened. And I got up and I left.
You had a long career in the NFL as a long snapper. How is the job of a long snapper similar to performing magic? What about powers of concentration?
Dorenbos: At an early age, especially when I got into card magic and stuff like that, I became obsessed with repetition. I became obsessed with the idea of doing something over and over and over in search of the perfect rep. Even though we'll probably never get there, that journey was awesome. Cards became that you're doing the same thing over and over and over and over again. And as a long snapper. That's what I'm doing, right? It's like the one thing in sports that is very consistent. You have one job and one job only. Every time you do it, you got one shot to do it. I love that I love the pressure I found in life. I am 10 times better under pressure than I am when there's nothing on the line.
You found out in 2017, you had an aortic aneurysm had to retire from football. Your playing career was much longer than the average career, but what was it like suddenly in your mid-30s? And you have to do something else?
Dorenbos: Yeah, it was a trip. I had just been traded (to the New Orleans Saints). I had an opportunity to make millions of dollars. When they discovered it, it was a non-football related injury. The transition was funny because I had open heart surgery. I was in the hospital for 35 days post surgery. Then (television host) Ellen DeGeneres was a big piece. She basically said, you're going to be on my show a lot. You're going to be on here as much as you want.
I would go home and spend the next month trying to figure out a new routine and make it and build it and trial and error. She gave my mind relevancy over time, she gave me something to look forward to. I had been a speaker every offseason that I played the NFL, I thought I was going to get cut. So I would always go out and perform. Fourteen years went by. It was the perfect transition of my career ending and this other career starting that I'd been building up for 20 years.
As you prepare for the Evening of Stars event in Bloomington Normal in a couple of days, what will your message be?
Dorenbos: It’s to continue to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It's life is beautiful, life is magic. Keep giving. The more we give, the more we receive, and realize what your journey is. The sooner that you come to peace with every part of your life. The sooner that you stop listening to yourself and start talking to yourself and you stop listening to the voice of self-doubt. The more you talk to yourself and you script your life out, the better life happens and continue to surround yourself with people that want to make a difference. That's a cool thing. And then hey, you're gonna see some really cool tricks.
Dorenbos also has written an autobiography, "Life is Magic: My Inspiring Journey from Tragedy to Self-Discovery."
Evening of Stars is one of the largest annual fundraisersfor the Red Cross of Central Illinois.