May 08, 2024

Jon Dorenbos: ‘Build on the Past and Learn’

photo of Jon Dorenbos

MIAMI BEACH, Fla.—When you look at his hard-earned Super Bowl ring, his record 162 consecutive NFL games played, and his successful second career as a magician, it’s easy to think Jon Dorenbos has lived his life on Easy Street. 

It’s been anything but. 

“I’m 12-years-old, playing across the street at a friend’s house, and when I got home I walked in to a situation to discover that out of nowhere, my dad murdered my mom,” Dorenbos recalled. 

What followed was a trial that saw his father convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to more than 13 years in prison, while Dorenbos and his sister were placed in foster care and underwent what he called “super-intense therapy.” 

As the May 8 keynoter at Smarter Faster Payments 2024, Dorenbos told this story not to elicit sympathy, but rather to make a point. 

“As hard as life gets, it’s up to us to be the difference maker. It’s up to us to rewrite our own story,” Dorenbos said. “And it’s our job to realize that happiness is not an emotion. Happiness is a decision, and no matter how hard the world gets, we will put ourselves back in order.” And as he said that he magically put every spade in a deck of cards that had been out of order, back in order.

Dorenbos has put himself back in order more than once. When the Philadelphia Eagles traded him to the New Orleans Saints a routine physical was required. Instead of the 15th NFL season Dorenbos was looking forward to, he got a phone call from a thoracic surgeon telling him, “You’re never going to play football again; you’re going to be in emergency open heart surgery probably in the next 48 hours.”

Dorenbos survived more than 15 hours on the operating table to correct a congenital heart defect that might have killed him had it gone undetected. 

He went on to other things. He took his magic skills to “America’s Got Talent,” and can laugh about watching the top prize go to a 12-year-old ukulele player. And he can talk openly on stage about how after 28 years he went to see his father and to tell him, “I forgive you”—a sentence Dorenbos said he’d never uttered before in his life. And at that point in his life, he finally felt free.

Before the luncheon crowd gave him a standing ovation, Dorenbos left them with this thought: “May everyone build on the past and learn, knowing that the future is where it’s at.”