The sports world lost one of its great storytellers last week with the passing of longtime ESPN broadcaster John Saunders. He was just 61 years old.

Sports stars are often admired and even idolized for what they’re able to achieve in the heat of competition and for what they sacrifice to earn those achievements.

Their accomplishments become all part of triumphed stories we lock away in our memories, but those stories are never just a bunch of muted images. They often have a voice. They have a storyteller that paints us a picture through eloquent words and calculated delivery.

The sports world lost one of its great storytellers last week with the passing of longtime ESPN broadcaster John Saunders. He was just 61 years old.

Saunders had been there to give a voice to the sports world for the past 30 years.

Fresh off of working at local news affiliates in his home country of Canada, Saunders joined ESPN as a SportsCenter anchor. At the time, the network was only in its infancy stages. It had only been launched seven years prior and wasn’t close to the juggernaut it is today.

It was all uphill from there.

Saunders went from simply presenting the day’s highlights to hosting live coverage and broadcasting games. Over the decades, he left his fingerprints on almost every American sport across the spectrum.

He had covered college basketball, the WNBA, the NHL, Major League Baseball, and recently, he had been a commentator for college football.

In addition to those ventures, Saunders had been the host of ESPN’s Sunday morning sports forum show “The Sports Reporters” for the past 15 years.

He had proven to be a wonderful successor to original host, Dick Schaap. Just as shocking and abrupt as Saunders’ death, Schaap passed away in 2001 at the age of 67, following complications during his hip replacement surgery.

It didn’t take long for former colleagues, friends and fans to express their sadness once the news of Saunders’ death broke. Within two hours, Twitter had erupted with over 82,000 tweets about him.

Jeremy Schapp, an ESPN reporter and son of Dick tweeted, “I will miss my friend John Saunders. Talented. Generous. Kind. Too young.” Fellow college football and basketball commentator Rece Davis said, “Prayers and condolences to the John Saunders family. We lost a great teammate. Great example and mentor to aspiring broadcasters.”

They were just two of the many figures from sports media that paid tribute after hearing the shocking news.

It was easy to see why Saunders garnered so much respect from his colleagues.

From all indications, he was an even greater man than he was a commentator. Those that knew him are quick to talk about how kind, genuine, compassionate and grounded he was.

As a TV personality, he was class personified, a consummate professional. He never got rattled; he never let his emotions get the best of him. He always found a way to stay even-keeled.

One of his best qualities was the way he never allowed himself to become bigger than what he was reporting. In today’s media world, pundits have almost become like entertainers at times, building personas and hijacking the commentary.

Saunders never did that. He never tried to be something he wasn’t, nor did he ever seek extra attention.

He always painted the picture in an elegant, respectful and polished manner that only caused his broadcast partners and fans to admire him more.

Saunders was a mentor to so many young sports journalists. He paved the way for black reporters to succeed in the profession.

He was one of the first newscasters of color at ESPN. Seeing him succeed on such a large platform inspired many kids watching at home to reach for their dreams.

Perhaps Saunders’ biggest contribution was what he did in the fight against cancer.

When former N.C. State head basketball coach Jim Valvano joined the network as a color commentator, along with becoming broadcast partners, he and Saunders became great friends.

After Valvano passed away following a lengthy battle with bone cancer, Saunders helped honor his fallen friend by becoming one of the founding members of the V Foundation for Cancer Research. He served on its board of directors.

Since its creation, the foundation has funded more than $130 million in cancer research grants nationwide.

It’s sad to see Saunders go so soon, but he’s in good hands now.

Somewhere up above, he can call basketball games with his friend, Jimmy V. He can sit back and talk sports with Dick Schaap.

He can even spend time with a sports anchor he helped inspire named Stuart Scott. It should be as cool as the other side of the pillow.