Chris Mortensen 1951-2024

By Bob Glauber
PFWA President 2018-20

Chris Mortensen was the best of us.

A legendarily great reporter. Someone who could be trusted with information that was the bedrock for what felt like a limitless number of sources. A presence in print or on television who was must read and must see.

But beyond what we saw of Mort in the job he so loved throughout a journalism career that began in 1969 at the South Bay Daily Breeze in his native Torrance, California, evolved into one of the great print journalism runs at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and later The National, and then a trailblazing career at ESPN beginning in 1991, there was a kind and generous soul who had time for everyone.

One of us. He was always one of us – no matter how big his platform, how big the stories he was breaking, or how bright the spotlight shone on him in covering the country’s most popular sport. Which makes the news of his loss hit that much harder.

Mort passed away on Sunday at the age of 72.

He produced an award-winning career, being honored with the George Polk Award, Emmy Awards for his work with NFL Countdown and other ESPN shows, and the PFWA’s highest honor – the Bill Nunn Jr. Award – in 2016. It was uncertain whether he’d be able to make it to Canton to receive the honor that year, having been diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer. But Mort fought through the illness and accepted the award despite having been on leave from ESPN, and he returned to the network the following year after a remarkable battle against the disease.

“I have many inspirational examples of men, women and children who have faced this very fight,” Mort said shortly after receiving his diagnosis. “We all know somebody, right? I also have the love and prayers of my wife Micki, my family, my friends, colleagues and, most of all, my faith that serve as sources of tremendous strength. I have a peace about this and look forward to the battle.”

He fought and fought and fought. And never complained. Soon after returning to ESPN, he told Peter King the biggest lesson he learned from his journey.

“Share the emotions that you feel for people when you have the opportunity,” Mort said. “If you love somebody, tell them. If somebody has done something for you, tell them you appreciate it. Don’t let the moment pass you by. Because you never know when you’ll have another chance.”

The recently retired King was devastated by Mort’s passing; in fact, the two had spoken not long before King announced his retirement from NBC last week.

“We’ll all miss him dearly,” King said. “There wasn’t a nicer, more considerate person in our business.”

Of Mort’s career, King said, “I believe (former Boston Globe columnist and NBC analyst) Will McDonough is the first person on the Mount Rushmore of NFL TV information, and Mort is right next to him. Wherever I was on Sunday, I made sure I saw what he said on the ESPN pre-game show – for years.”

The ESPN community was deeply saddened by Mortensen’s passing.

“An absolutely devastating day,” Adam Schefter said on social media. “Mort was one of the greatest reporters in sports history, and an even better man. Sincerest condolences to his family, and all who knew and loved him. So many did. Mort was the very best. He will be forever missed and remembered.”

ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro said, “Mort was widely respected as an industry pioneer and universally beloved as a supportive, hard-working teammate.”

Mort cultivated sources over a lifetime, never compromising his values while earning the most precious commodity in our business: trust. It’s why Peyton Manning reserved some of his most important news for Mort.

“I trusted him with my announcement to sign with the Broncos, and with the news of my retirement,” Manning wrote Sunday on Instagram. “I will miss him dearly, and my thoughts and prayers are with Micki and his family. Rest in peace, Mort.”

Former NFL receiver and ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson tweeted, “I don’t even have words really just crying my ass off. One of my closest colleagues in this biz … always had my back regardless of the situation. I love you like a father, may you rest in peace … you will be missed by all.”

It wasn’t only the biggest of the big stars who trusted and revered Mort. It was nearly everyone in our business who shared the same press room or NFL owners meetings space or Super Bowl convention center or wherever we did our work.

Here’s ESPN Denver reporter and past PFWA president Jeff Legwold on Sunday. “Writing from the seats in (Lucas Oil) stadium at the combine, which seems fitting …

“It won’t be all of the stories that he got and few, if any others, could have. Or how he essentially helped carve out the transitionary path from the print world to the multi-platform domain of a ground-breaking NFL insider. Or his humanity through both the toughest of times, the best of times and all of it in between.

“It will be the smile that will always cross my face when I remember, after I once finished a quick-hit, two-question spot on TV that Mort texted me – ‘Leggy, no pocket square … good job … real reporters don’t wear pocket squares.’”

And this from NFL.com senior national columnist Judy Battista, who got to know Mort while covering the Jets and then the NFL at the New York Times: “He wasn’t respected and admired just because he was plugged in and got huge stories, but because he was kind in a cutthroat business and supportive of colleagues and competitors. He helped create a cottage industry of insiders who made the leap from newspapers to TV, but what I’ll remember are his messages of support that would pop into the email inbox.”

PFWA president Calvin Watkins called Mort “one of the legends in our business. His faith was something I admired more than what he did in the business. He was always giving with his time, and just to say I worked with him was an honor I’ll never forget. The way he conducted his business is a master class on how to cover the NFL.”

Longtime Dallas Morning News columnist, Nunn Award winner and Hall of Fame selector Rick Gosselin said, “Mort’s passing hit me hard. I remember being on the phone with him almost daily in early 1990 when he was trying to recruit me to come to The National with him. He was a long-time friend and a respected sounding board. He helped create the television insider niche that Will McDonough created in print.”

Charean Williams of Profootballtalk.com, a past PFWA president and Nunn Award winner, said Mortensen “left a legacy that will live on for decades. He was generous and kind to young reporters, always offering a hand, and he was the trailblazer in breaking news in the NFL.”

NFL columnist Mike Jones of The Athletic was surprised to see a direct message on Twitter from Mortensen a couple years ago.

“I had long respected Mort, but never had the privilege of spending any extended period of time with him – just quick passing hellos at events,” Jones said. “So I see a direct message asking me to call him. He had found a line in my column to be concerning and wanted to speak to me about it. I had written about the struggle of Black coaches to receive fair opportunity for advancement, and upon calling Mort, he mentioned a line where I described the NFL owners as ‘having a slave-owner mentality.’

“Mort explained that he was taken aback by that line, and that he then started reflecting,” Jones said. “He said he knew I wouldn’t have written that if it hadn’t come from coaches and players, and so he wanted to better understand. He picked my brain on a number of racial issues, from Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to Brian Flores’ firing and ensuing lawsuit and the struggle encountered by aspiring coaches and general managers. He asked me how he could effectively advocate for people of color. He wanted to do so in a genuine form and not look like he was just trying to jump on a bandwagon.”

Jones called Mort’s “humility, hunger for understanding and fairness so refreshing and inspiring, serving as a further testament to the top-notch quality of human being that we all knew him as.”

Barry Wilner, the longtime Associated Press national NFL writer and columnist, correctly labeled Mort “a pioneer in sports journalism,” and added, “so many of us who followed his path owe much of our success to his groundbreaking approach.”

And Mort got there with an approach we can all appreciate. “Chris did everything with class,” Wilner said. “Never confrontational, always inquisitive and fair, he epitomized what a journalist should be.”

Wilner will also remember Mort’s humanity. “I recall covering the 2011 lockout and during a 95-degree day in Washington, he shared his air-conditioned ESPN trailer outside of union headquarters with several very sweaty and uncomfortable media colleagues. That was Mort.”

He touched so many lives, including NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who was near tears during Sunday’s broadcast when he heard the news of Mort’s passing.

“He’s just one of the sweetest souls you will have ever met,” he said. “That’s why when we found out about this, the last thing I want to do is come out here. But, man, he would punch me in the face if we didn’t do this and have fun and enjoy this great game that he loved so much.”

Chris Mortensen. Such a wonderful journalist with such a kind soul.

Rest in peace, friend.

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