EXCLUSIVE: Producer Mike Tollin has made numerous films and documentaries on sports figures, but the deal he has just closed with Jon Dorenbos puts on a fast track Tollin’s first about a long snapper who moonlights as a magician. Dorenbos spent most of his 15 seasons on a football field as the long snapper for the Philadelphia Eagles, the team that just won the Super Bowl. Freshly retired, Dorenbos is focusing on that second career, after a memorable recent stint on America’s Got Talent.
The deal encompasses life rights and an option on Life Is Magic, a book Dorenbos is writing for Simon & Schuster with Larry Platt, author of books on such Philadelphia-based sports stars as Allen Iverson. Tollin will quickly hire a scribe who’ll simultaneously develop a movie Tollin will produce, with development financed through the inspirational sports film slate he’s assembling through a recent deal involving IMG and Mandalay Sports Media.
Who’s Dorenbos and what’s a long snapper? Dorenbos’ talent is to bend over and accurately hike a football 15 yards backwards for field goals and punts, and then keep the behemoth on the other side of the line from blocking the kick. The discipline is similar to his prowess with a deck of cards. Both are based on consistency and repetition. And if you screw up, you look really dumb.
“I learned to love doing the same thing over and over in search of the perfect repetition, whether it’s a card trick that seemed almost impossible when I started, or football. My ball spins three and a half times and if I hit the same spot at the same speed, the holder need only catch it, and put it down because the laces are out and it’s ready to go. You can add weather, wind, and that 300-pound plus guy opposite you who’s trying to freaking kill you, but they don’t matter. It’s all about the perfect rep.”
While that hardly screams movie, everything else in Dorenbos’ life certainly does.
Dorenbos lost himself in a deck of cards to cope with childhood tragedy. Raised in Seattle, his childhood was destroyed when his father Alan murdered his mother Kathy in an act of domestic violence. All this when Dorenbos was just 12 years old. The sleight of hand skills Dorenbos learned over years would come in handy when he trying to figure out a path to the NFL. This was during the days of VHS and in the fuzzy highlight tape he sent to colleges, Dorenbos supplemented footage of his exploits and solid play on a winless junior college team with plays made by two teammates who were roughly his size. One hit harder and another was a gifted special team long snapper. Dorenbos got a scholarship to UTEP out of that, where he perfected the long snap enough to sustain a 15-year NFL career, an eternity for a special teams player.
Just before the Eagles won the team’s first Super Bowl, Dorenbos was traded to the New Orleans Saints. Before he ever snapped a ball in a game for his new team, Dorenbos took a physical that showed an aortic aneurysm, a potentially fatal condition which forced him to retire immediately and undergo open heart surgery. It was game over for his football career.
So how is it that Dorenbos just returned from watching the Super Bowl from the suite of Eagles team owner Jeffrey Lurie, then waved to that fanatical Philly crowd in the Eagles victory parade, to be followed by a ceremony where Dorenbos will get a Super Bowl ring? Let him tell it.
“Jeffrey said, you’re an Eagle for life and you helped get us to this point,” Dorenbos said. “He told me, ‘I think we’re going to get there this year, and you are part of the family and you’re coming.’ I didn’t play football to break records, but I do hold the record for most consecutive games played as an Eagle. When they told me I would be traded to New Orleans, I had to make myself OK with it. My first thought was it is the favorite team of Ellen DeGeneres, who has let me perform a bunch of times of her show after AGT. For a 37-year-old player, the opportunity to get out of the cold and play half a season’s games indoors sounded good. I take the physical, the doctor calls me and says, there is a problem with your heart. After an echo cardiogram, the cardiologist says, ‘I don’t really know how to tell you this, but you’re never playing football again and you need emergency open heart surgery, very soon.’ I’m like, ‘huh?’
Dorenbos had an aneurysm in his ascending aorta. Basically, the valve that opens and closes as the blood leaves a heart was leaking to the point that 60% of the blood that was pumping from the heart meant to course through his body, was leaking back into the chamber. “As a result of the heart filling back up with blood, I developed an aneurysm that grew to the size of a Coke can,” Dorenbos said. “It should be the size of a dime but it became this water balloon, ready to pop. It’s how John Ritter and Alan Thicke died. Had I played and gotten hit in the chest, or run a little too fast and my heart beat too quickly, the aneurysm could have ruptured. That’s how big it was.”
If it sounds like Dorenbos is complaining, he’s not. He had no idea of his ticker time bomb and knows he dodged a bullet. It’s a bit schmaltzy, but a Philly sportswriter once reminded Dorenbos when he joined the team that when the player’s mother was buried, a friend sang the song “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” The lyrics talk of flying higher than an eagle with the wind beneath his wings; Dorenbos believes that was his mother, and he finds meaning in that his life was saved by a saint, as in the team whose doctors saved him from a catastrophic rupture. The aunt who became his guardian would find pennies on the ground and tell the young Dorenbos they were dropped from heaven by his mother. When Dorenbos got his diagnosis, he found a shiny one at his feet and took it as a sign he would be OK. For a young man whose life once seemed irreparably shattered by tragedy, the search for signs and things to believe in are important.
“I have learned that the sooner you accept your reality, the sooner you can look at the positives in life,” he said. “My reality was that I lost both of my parents. My dad went to prison and my mom was killed. My sister and I stayed with a temporary foster family for a bit, until my aunt, my mom’s sister, got custody of us. I loved magic. It was really the only time that I didn’t think about all the crap, the counseling therapy, the grieving. I would sit at a table, shuffle cards and learn moves, for 10 hours at a time. As a kid, it taught me it was OK to be alone and work toward something. I am a slow, pudgy white guy who never thought he would play football. I made two Pro Bowls and guess what? All I did was stay on the path and show up every day, when others jumped off the path.”
Along that path, Dorenbos loved the movies made by Philly fan Tollin, and they built a relationship, as Dorenbos plied the filmmaker with cleats and helmets signed by Eagles stars that delighted the producer’s son Lucas. After Dorenbos introduced his magic skills on a season’s worth of AGT episodes where he finished in third place in the talent contest, numerous producers came calling to tell his life story. But Dorenbos said Tollin was an easy choice and he gave him the book option for $1.
For his part, Tollin said that the recent championship by the Eagles compels him to rush a movie they hope will follow in the steps of such Eagles-centric underdog stories as the Bradley Cooper-Jennifer Lawrence pic Silver Linings Playbook and the Mark Wahlberg-Elizabeth Banks starrer Invincible.
“The world has turned upside down, the Eagles are Super Bowl champions, and O-fer-life no more is what we go around saying,” said Tollin, who with Dorenbos immediately rejected this Giants fan’s suggestion of A Sign of the Apocalypse as a possible title if they were bent on intertwining the Super Bowl with the Dorenbros story. They’ll need a title soon: Tollin said the Super Bowl win has accelerated the movie effort. He is talking with an A-list star already, and the dream is to have this film out when, Tollin said in the cocky fashion of an Eagles fan, the team defends its crown in the NFC playoffs.
“Jon and I have been talking about this for a while, and I once told him we needed a third act, but I didn’t mean nearly killing himself,” Tollin said. “This is about overcoming obstacles and turning tragedies into positives and the story is so unlikely that I thought we’d need a coda to say the story was true. We have that, with Jon and the beautiful wife he just married, Annalise, in the parade with confetti falling on their heads.”
Dorenbos has just signed with ICM Partners in all areas including TV, and the agency will help grow his career from magic to motivational speaking. He’s managed by 287 Entertainment’s Jake LaGrone and lawyered by Felker Toczek. Lit agent David Black brokered the book deal.
Here is some of Dorenbos’ magic work on AGT: