PHILADELPHIA — The magic man is in his element. He's working a crowd in the back room of a Philadelphia sports bar, his baseball cap turned backward and the sleeves of his sweat shirt pushed up over his thick forearms.
A dozen men are huddled around him, transfixed. That's not because he's Jon Dorenbos, long snapper for the Philadelphia Eagles. It's that he's holding a deck of playing cards, effortlessly riffling them with one hand, sometimes shooting them to the other in a graceful arch.
Fanning the cards, Dorenbos has one of the men select one, sign it with a felt-tip marker, then put it back in the deck. More shuffles, a few flourishes, and the card disappears -- only to wind up tucked in the watchband of a perplexed spectator.
The men erupt in laughter. In his day job, Dorenbos, 30, earns $1 million a year hiking a football between his legs on punts and kicks. In his off hours, he performs seamless illusions that earn him thousands of dollars an hour -- tricks such as swallowing needles, then extracting them perfectly threaded; turning a floating paper rose into a real one; removing people's neckties without them noticing.
Magic is much more than a hobby to Dorenbos. It first offered him a refuge from a sorrowful childhood. Now it's his calling card, allowing him not only to entertain but to help others.
"I'll never forget what magic did for me," said Dorenbos, whose Eagles will play host to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in a first-round NFL playoff game. "I know the power that it has."
On Aug. 2, 1992, Alan Dorenbos, a computer consultant at Microsoft and onetime president of the local Little League, bludgeoned his wife to death with a bench grinder during an argument in their Seattle-area home.
He hid Kathy's body in a sleeping bag in the trunk of his car, gave excuses to their sixth-grade son, Jon, about her whereabouts and repainted the garage in hopes of covering up the crime.
Jon, the youngest of three children, was at a baseball day camp when his father inexplicably drove her body to the police and turned himself in.
The trial attracted intense media coverage. Jon, who testified against his father, remembers having to hide inside car trunks to avoid reporters.
The state of Washington appointed family therapist John Walter to work with Jon and his sister Kristina. Rather than shelter the children, Walter sought to expose them to the unvarnished horror of the slaying in hopes of exorcising it. He wanted them never to wonder what their father had done, Jon said. Walter encouraged them to attend the trial -- Jon and Kristina were there every day with their older brother Randy, frequently holding hands -- and to view the autopsy photos of their mother.
"He was the kindest, most loving and compassionate person that you could possibly ask for, but he did everything uncomfortable to make us grow," Jon said. "He gave us the tools to heal our souls and make us productive people."
After Jon and Kristina viewed the autopsy photos, the therapist took them to a cliff overlooking Puget Sound and encouraged them to scream.
"We probably sat there for 45 minutes and cried and screamed," Jon recalled. "... it was one of the greatest things I ever did in my life."
Alan Dorenbos claimed he acted in self-defense. The jury thought otherwise. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 13 years, eight months. He was released from prison six years ago and Jon has had no contact with him. The way he sees it, the crime cost him both his parents.
Jon and his sister left Washington to live with their mother's sister in Southern California. Shortly after moving to Orange County, Jon returned to Woodinville, Wash., to participate in an all-star baseball tournament. He stayed with a teammate's family.
There he became thrilled with magic when a 16-year-old neighbor showed him a simple trick: making a small sponge ball disappear and then multiply. The boy wound up taking Jon to a magic shop and buying him a book of tricks.
Back in Garden Grove, Dorenbos immersed himself in the world of illusions. He learned that book by heart, and he would come home from school every day to practice in his room with a deck of cards. Sometimes he would do the same tricks over and over through the night.
"It was therapeutic for me," he said. "It was something I could control. I got obsessed with the sleights, and I knew that I wanted to play pro ball and be a magician. That's it."
His family embraced his passion. His grandfather helped him build a "sub-trunk" that allowed Dorenbos to trade places with an assistant ostensibly locked in the box.
His aunt introduced him to a friend, Ken Sands, a longtime professional magician who owns a magic store in Westminster. Sands marveled at Dorenbos' self-taught skills, and the acts the boy would mimic by studying videos of famous magicians.
"As a close-up magician, he's as good as any professional I've ever seen," Sands said.