John Saunders, versatile ESPN sportscaster, dead at 61

ESPN host John Saunders speaks on stage at the Paley Prize Gala honoring ESPN's 35th anniversary presented by Roc Nation Sports on May 28, 2014 in New York City.

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NEW YORK -- ESPN sportscaster John Saunders, who has hosted "The Sports Reporters" for the last 15 years, has died, the network announced Wednesday. He was 61.

Saunders joined ESPN in 1986. He did play-by-play on various sports, hosted NHL Stanley Cup Final coverage and World Series coverage and hosted studio shows for baseball, college football and college basketball.

A cause of death was not announced.

Saunders took over as host of "The Sports Reporters," a Sunday morning staple of ESPN programming, after Dick Schaap died in 2001. Saunders played the role of calm traffic cop on the panel show that featured three sports journalists volleying opinions on the top sports news of the week.

"John was an extraordinary talent and his friendly, informative style has been a warm welcome to sports fans for decades. His wide range of accomplishments across numerous sports and championship events is among the most impressive this industry has ever seen," ESPN President John Skipper said in a statement.

Saunders' colleagues, peers and athletes paid tribute to him on Twitter. His co-author John U. Bacon said he and Saunders wrapped up the sportscaster's autobiography in the spring, after five years of work, adding, "He was an amazing man, and truly, to me, a hero."

Some mourners referred to Saunders as a mentor, but one common theme among the tweets was how kind and personable he was.

"John Saunders was somebody you couldn't help but love," wrote Indianapolis Colts player Pat McAfee, after saying he found many ESPN personalities difficult to like.

Saunders was also a founding member of the board of directors for The V Foundation for Cancer Research, a charity started by the network after former college basketball coach and ESPN announcer Jim Valvano died of cancer in 1993.

"He was one of the most significant and influential members of the ESPN family, as a colleague and mentor, and he will be sorely missed," Skipper said. "Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this extremely difficult time."

Saunders was born in Ontario, Canada, and played hockey at Western Michigan University from 1974-76. He lived in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, with his wife, Wanda. They had two daughters.