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Saturday, April 26, 2003
Updated: April 29, 1:55 PM ET
Dorenbos rises from tragedy

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The most magical player still available after the three-round proceedings of Saturday is a prospect who isn't even on the draft boards of most NFL teams, was personally auditioned by just six franchises, and who might not even be included among those 262 candidates who will have been chosen by Sunday evening.

Then again, if he isn't selected at all in the NFL draft, it won't be the worst thing that has ever happened to Jon Dorenbos.

In fact, it wouldn't even be close, he acknowledged.

Bills add Dorenbos
Editor's note: UTEP deep-snapper Jon Dorenbos was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Buffalo Bills.

"Nope, not at all," said Dorenbos, a special teams standout from Texas-El Paso, and a player some scouts feel is the best deep-snapper prospect in this draft, with some talent evaluators suggesting he might be one of the best they have seen in several years. "When you look at the big picture, if I don't get taken . . . well, hey, I've gotten through a whole lot worse."

A professional magician, who has performed in Las Vegas and Hollywood and who has earned as much as $1,000 per hour as an entertainer, there is no sleight of hand in Dorenbos' ambitious repertoire that he can perform and simply make disappear the tragedy he experienced nearly 10 years ago.

It has taken years of therapy, the diversions of magic and football, strong values and an even stronger family, to get Dorenbos to the point where he can discuss the events of 1993. He was 12 years old at the time his mother was killed, just an impressionable youngster moving into adolescence when his father was charged with and convicted of her murder, a kid buffeted to a foster home and then subjected to an intense custody battle.

That he was saved by his aunt and uncle, Susan and Steve Hindman, who won custody and eventually were able to legally adopt Dorenbus, certainly is admirable. No more so, however, than the fact Jon Dorenbos, his life in total upheaval at an age where survival skills are still nascent, was able to somehow land on his feet and salvage his life after such a heinous event.

There is a certain irony, and at the same time a sort of poetic justice, to the possibility Jon Dorenbos might actually derive a livelihood from standing upside down and staring backwards. In those years immediately after his father was convicted of second-degree murder, and his somewhat cozy life and upper-middle class upbringing was rent asunder, Dorenbos was forced by his therapist to confront tragedy in the rear-view mirror.

The breakthrough to some semblance of normalcy was not an easy one.

It was during those years that Dorenbos began practicing magic and the art of illusion.

"It became, in a very real way, my escape," Dorenbos allowed. "I had to find something that got my mind off what had happened. Once I got into it a little, and found out I liked it, then it became a passion for me. Now it's a way to earn a few bucks and entertain some people."

Toward the first end, Dorenbos works a few hours a month, and earns some pocket dough. As for the latter effort, well, he performs regularly for kids in hospitals or at parties, scaling back his rather sophisticated act and working instead on things like fashioning balloon animals or pulling bunnies out of a top hat or turning his wand into a fistful of chrysanthemums.

You know, the usual age-appropriate stuff, the illusions and sight gags that get a chuckle out of some bed-ridden youngster.

His trademark stunt is one in which he lights himself on fire -- something he does not, of course, recommend even for some practiced illusionists -- but a typical performance for an adult audience also features the kinds of tricks that require sharp eyes to discern. He can, for instance, pilfer your watch or pick your wallet from your pocket before you realize either is missing. He does card tricks, too, and his act runs the usual gamut.

But his best trick over the past three years at UTEP has been rifling the ball back to the punter at near warp-speed. At a recent "pro day" workout, where six teams attended, he averaged .62 seconds in getting the ball to the punter. One hyper-speed snap was timed at .59 seconds. For the uninitiated, a good time in the NFL is regarded as .70-.75 seconds.

" Even on tape," said St. Louis Rams special teams coach Bobby April, "it's clear the guy is amazing. He's the best I've seen this year. And he might be the best in a lot of years, maybe among the top guys I've ever seen. I know we won't take him, because we used a draft pick (in 2002) on our snapper (Chris Massey), and he's excellent. But I'll tell you, Dorenbos is something else, he really is, man."

But getting from being a deep snapper at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, Calif., to performing the esoteric art at Texas-El Paso required a little sleight of hand as well. Or, least least, some careful film editing.

Dorenbos, 22, was in his freshman year at Golden West Junior College in Huntingdon Beach, Calif., when he received a phone call from a buddy who was at UTEP at the time. The message: The school desperately needed a guy who could deep-snap without spraying the ball all over the lot.

Trouble was, Dorenbos, who has also played some linebacker and fullback in his career, wasn't handling deep-snapping duties then at Golden West. So he took some video from his high school days, spliced in footage of the player who was deep-snapping at Golden West, doctored everything up a little, and shipped it off to the UTEP coaches. Their phone calls led to his being recruited and he became the UTEP deep-snapper for three years.

What the scouts like nearly as much as his snapping acumen is the manner in which he gets downfield on punt coverage. In three years at UTEP, he averaged nearly 10 tackles. By league standards, if a deep-snapper records four or five tackles annually, it is considered extraordinary.

Said Dorenbos of his trademark hustle: "The way I see it, I'm only on the field for five or six snaps a game. Geez, if I can't go all-out on those few snaps, I ought to be doing something else. You'd think I should have the energy, man, to at least cover a few kicks, huh?"

There is always a chance, of course, that Dorenbos will indeed be doing something other than playing football in 2003. Then again, if he just gets into an NFL training camp, and is as good as scouts contend that he is, he might well earn a roster spot. In the wake of the botched field goal attempt by the New York Giants in their playoff defeat at San Francisco, the art of deep-snapping is a much better appreciated one.

Even if Dorenbos doesn't ever cash an NFL paycheck, the story of the engaging deep-snapper/magician, is an estimable tale of survival and of triumph of the human spirit.

There is still some contact with his father, whose first name Jon asked not be divulged, and the elder Dorenbos could be released as early as next year. It remains to be seen if Jon reconciles with his dad, a prominent software specialist, and there are some mixed emotions along those lines. To Jon Dorenbos, his aunt and uncle have become mother and father, and there is little doubt he views them as such.

His sister, Krissy, has graduated from college with a neuroscience degree and is committed to helping children. Whether he makes it to the NFL or makes it to Las Vegas as a flashy showman, Jon Dorenbos has promised himself he won't forget what it was like to be traumatized at such a young age, and he likewise will find some outlet for aiding youngsters forced to experience similar circumstances.

There is no trick, after all, for totally expunging one's memory banks.

"You know somewhere, during those years of therapy, I remember telling my sister that we could live forever stuck in that whole incident," Dorenbos said. "Or we could do something with ourselves and with our lives. I think we've kind of both chosen that (latter) approach."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.