A sensation this summer on NBC, Jon Dorenbos is taking his act to ESPN.
Live from Chicago on Monday, the magician who five nights earlier finished third on “America’s Got Talent” intends to reappear in prime time fending off Bears as the Eagles’ long snapper.
Not a bad trick, but merely one of many and hardly his most remarkable.
“This guy was sitting next to me on a flight a while back asking me questions about my life, and he didn’t believe a word I was saying,” Dorenbos said Thursday night from Philadelphia, a day removed from the live “AGT” finale in Los Angeles.
“As I heard my own answers, it dawned on me that my life is unbelievable. These were true stories and this guy thought I was so full of it.”
As those who followed Dorenbos’ run to the finals on “AGT” know, pro football is his day job, his magic a source of uplift and his life a barely plausible movie waiting only to be written and produced.
Undrafted out of college, he’s a two-time Pro Bowl player in his 14th NFL season. He wields sleight of hand to amaze and inspire when not playing, having taken up magic as a needed diversion after the loss of both of his birth parents when he was 12.
One was imprisoned for murder.
The other was the victim.
Few “Monday Night Football” storylines come so neatly wrapped, even if Dorenbos’ role for the Eagles typically looms large only if he screws up.
Monday will be Dorenbos’ 151st successive regular-season game for the Eagles, who signed him in the middle of the 2006 season after stints with the Titans and Bills.
The Bills landed him in 2003 as a free agent out of the University of Texas at El Paso, where he never would have played had a friend not tipped him that the Miners needed a long snapper.
Dorenbos was a linebacker at a two-year California college who hadn’t handled long snaps since high school. He sent UTEP coaches clips of him and other players, including his team’s long snapper, hoping they wouldn’t look too closely. The trick worked.
“I knew I could play at that level, I just needed an in,” Dorenbos said. “I snapped three years at UTEP and now this is my 14th year in the NFL, and arguably I would never have played.”
Should the 36-year-old Dorenbos make it through the season, he would overtake Harold Carmichael as the franchise’s all-time leader in consecutive games played.
Dorenbos not only has been durable, but also has avoided mangling the fingers vital for the mix of magic and motivational speaking he uses to make a few bucks in the offseason, which he looks to parlay into his post-NFL career.
When he signed up for “AGT,” he thought the final rounds were still staged in New York, but they moved back to Los Angeles this year. He minimized his absences from training camp and practices as best he could, but he could not have gone forward without the blessing of the Eagles.
“(Owner) Jeffrey Lurie basically said … ‘Who am I to prevent you from doing something that you’ve been doing since you were a little kid that we all know saved your life and changed your life?’ ” Dorenbos said. “I really didn’t miss that many days.”
It’s unclear if the dueling duties have hurt the 1-0 Eagles. It definitely has been good for Dorenbos.
Simon Cowell, an “AGT” judge and executive producer better known for his criticism than praise, called Dorenbos “a great performer” and said all of the judges would be “proud to say, ‘The winner of this program is Jon Dorenbos.’”
The winner, instead, was not unexpectedly Grace VanderWaal, a 12-year-old singer-songwriter who had an original composition she performed on the program go viral.
But the bits Dorenbos showed the nation — manipulating cards, seeming to predict the unpredictable, weaving in uplifting patter — dazzled.
“It was more than magic, it was inspirational,” Howie Mandel, another “AGT” judge, told him on a show. “And knowing your story, you really do have a message.”
That story began on a summer Sunday night in 1992, in a suburb of Seattle while Jon played at a friend’s home. A fight between his parents spun out of control.
Alan Dorenbos bludgeoned Kathleen Dorenbos to death with a bench grinder in their garage.
On the advice of a court-appointed therapist, the three Dorenbos children sat in court through the trial and were not spared the graphic details.
“The children wanted to know what happened,” a relative told the Seattle Times after the trial. “They didn’t want to have questions later on in life about what had taken place. They needed answers.”
Young Jon was among those who testified against his father.
As the guilty verdict was read, the Times said Jon’s brother, a high school senior, put his head in his hands. Jon’s teen sister cried. Jon reportedly stared at his father, who sat expressionless and would serve 11 years behind bars.
Jon has no room for Alan or anyone who has wronged him in his life. He recalls a therapist asking him when he was 13 what his goal in life was.
“I thought about it and said, ‘I want to die happy,’ ” Dorenbos said. “I wonder if my mom was happy when she died. You have to find what’s important to you in your life and you’ve got to hold on to it.”
He thanks his maternal aunt — who fought for custody as a single 32-year-old, getting Jon and his sister (today a professor and epilepsy researcher) out of foster care and raising them in Southern California — for raising him into the man he is.
“She put her life on hold and there was zero hesitation,” he said.
Dealt an awful hand, Dorenbos found salvation in sports and in learning to make cards do amazing things. Others may dissemble his magic and discover the secrets behind the tricks he performs. The rest of what he does is harder to replicate.
A lot can be chalked up to perseverance and, he said, “I genuinely do not have a fear of failure.”
But then, given all he already has been through, what else is there to fear?