Remembering ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, who changed how the NFL is covered

The phone call Adam Schefter always feared came on his first Sunday at home in five months. It was early March, and ESPN’s senior NFL reporter had recently flown back from Indianapolis after a week at the scouting combine. He was about to sit down for breakfast with his family when his cell buzzed.

It was his boss, Seth Markman.

“We lost him,” was all Markman could muster.

For years, Schefter had known the call might come — when your close friend and colleague is diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer at age 64, you prepare for the worst. There were a few times in 2020, and a few more in 2022, when Schefter thought to himself, This might be it. But Chris Mortensen always pulled though.

“A tough son of a bitch,” Markman said.

“He fought for every single day he got,” adds Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network.

When Mort first revealed his diagnosis to Schefter, over email in 2016, he begged his pal to keep it quiet for a few days — Mort’s son, Alex, was about to coach in college football’s national championship game, and he didn’t want to spoil his moment. Mort was always more worried about what this would do to his wife, Micki, than the grueling treatment ahead. “Micki is really struggling,” he closed the email. “I’m still going to be a jackass.”

He never let on how draining it was: the chemo, the radiation that left burns all over his neck, the IV regimen that sapped his strength but not his spirit. He dropped weight. He lost hair. His voice faded. When friends would ask how he was doing, he’d shrug them off. “I’m fine, I’m good,” Mort would tell them. “I’m dealing with it.”

He worked about as long as he could. At the 2023 draft, Mort’s last at ESPN, he had to use a spray bottle to wet his mouth between segments. His saliva glands had stopped working.

He retired. He spent last fall watching Alex call plays as UAB’s offensive coordinator. His friends thought he was doing fine, all things considered. Schefter called him from the combine this year after finding out one of Schefter’s five dogs, Benny, had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Mort consoled him, never mentioning how he was feeling. It was the last time the two spoke.

“He sounded better, like things were going the right way,” Schefter says.

Adds ESPN colleague Mel Kiper, Jr., “Nobody was prepared for it to happen now.”

Mort spent the night before he died at home on his horse farm in Arkansas watching football drills and TV coverage of the combine, cracking jokes on text threads.

Jeremiah got the news during a commercial break the next day, then broke down when Rich Eisen asked him about it on the air. The man who’d jumpstarted his career — “None of it happens without him,” he says — was gone. With tears in his eyes, Jeremiah tried to settle himself.

“Mort would’ve punched me in the face if I didn’t finish that broadcast right,” he says.

A few hours later, Schefter’s phone buzzed again. It was John Walsh, a longtime ESPN executive. “I want you to know how much Mort pushed you for this job,” Walsh told him.

“I know, John, I know,” Schefter said.

“No, I don’t think you really do,” Walsh followed. “You wouldn’t be at ESPN if not for Mort.”

Two months later, Schefter is in his office, staring at a picture of him and Mort from a Super Bowl a few years back.

“I miss him making me laugh,” Schefter says. “I don’t laugh as much without him.

“I just …”

He pauses. He sighs.

“I just cannot believe he’s not here.”

Adam Schefter (left) was hired at ESPN in large part because of Chris Mortensen, and the two grew close over the years. (Courtesy of ESPN)

They didn’t come for the reporter. They came for the man.

Former head coaches. Current general managers. Hundreds of ESPN colleagues who overlapped with Mortensen during his 32-year run at the network — Adrian Wojnarowski even flew in during the NBA playoffs — descended on a small Arkansas town last week to remember one of the most influential reporters in NFL history.

But they didn’t tell stories about what he did. They told stories about who he was.

Mort was a prankster, the coworker who always made the room feel lighter. In all his years at ESPN, nobody gave Chris Berman more grief. Once, when the network’s new fantasy football expert, Matthew Berry, walked into the room to watch his first Sunday slate of games with the group, Mort piped up. “Why don’t you sit here, Matthew?” he said, guiding Berry to a spot in the front row. What Berry didn’t know: The seat belonged to Berman, every Sunday, no questions asked. And Berman hated fantasy football. “Still does,” Schefter says.

A minute later, Berman entered, looked around the room and saw the fantasy football guy parked in his seat.

“You’re in the wrong chair,” he bellowed.

Mort and the rest of the room burst into laughter.

(For years, Berry named his fantasy team “The Wrong Chair.”)

After Berman’s daughter, Meredith, was diagnosed with tongue cancer a few years back, Mort became her sounding board. A rapport developed, two patients slogging through treatment, venting for hours on the phone. One would make it. One wouldn’t. “He was a rock for her,” Berman says, “and probably on some days when he was suffering terribly.”

He was selfless. When Markman was recruiting Schefter to ESPN in 2009, his bosses were on board — as long as Mort was on board. At the time, Mort was ESPN’s chief NFL reporter, the face of the network’s coverage for two decades running.

One Sunday morning, Markman nervously made his way to the green room, worried that Mort might squash the idea entirely. “He had that kind of power,” Markman remembers.

“I’m gonna be honest,” he told Mort, “it’s gonna cut into your screen time quite a bit.”

Mort didn’t hesitate.

“Seth, if we can get Adam Schefter, you get him,” he said. “Less of me on TV is a good thing.”

Markman laughs, reliving the story 15 years later.

“Are you kidding me?” he says. “Less of me is a good thing? Nobody in this industry says that.”

Mort and Schefter grew incredibly tight. And as Mort’s health deteriorated following his diagnosis, and as Schefter climbed into the top chair, Mort coached him behind the scenes.

“That sort of thing never happens,” says Bryan Curtis, who writes about sports media for The Ringer. “People who get to that level are very, very competitive, and in almost every instance, it doesn’t work. This did. And it allowed ESPN to own NFL scoops for 10 years.”

Mort was the best kind of mentor. When Jeremiah was still in college, he walked into his parents’ living room one afternoon and wondered why the guy from ESPN was sitting on the couch. It was January 1998, a week before the Broncos played the Packers in the Super Bowl in San Diego, and Mort was in town to cover the game. He’d attended a church service hosted by Jeremiah’s father, David, and stopped by for lunch afterward.

Daniel was a 21-year-old quarterback at Appalachian State with dreams of getting into broadcasting.

“Well, I’ve got an interview with Reggie White tomorrow, would you wanna come with me?” Mort asked him.

“This was literally the first time I met him,” Jeremiah remembers. “I was like, ‘Reggie White! Are you kidding me?’”

After that interview wrapped, Mort urged him to tag along at media day later in the week. A year later, he was sitting next to Mort at the NFL Draft in New York City, answering his phones and jotting down notes from GMs. A year later, Mort introduced him to Jay Rothman, who produced “Sunday Night Football.” Jeremiah had his first full-time job.

“All because of Mort,” he says.

A few years later, after Jeremiah spent time scouting for the Ravens and Browns, it was Mort who pushed him to jump on this new social media platform called Twitter and dissect draft prospects. Mort would routinely urge his followers to check out @MoveTheSticks, and each time he did Jeremiah would pick up thousands of new followers.

Jeremiah just wrapped his sixth draft as NFL Network’s lead analyst, and his first without a tradition he’d come to cherish: a meeting with Mort the morning before the first round. They’d done it every year dating to 2000, when he was just a grunt answering phones and scribbling down notes.

“It was so weird not having him there,” Jeremiah says. “That man is literally the reason I’m in the seat I am in.”

Mortensen was a prankster, a coworker who always lightened the mood of a room. (Courtesy of ESPN)

Chris Mortensen wasn’t the first football scribe to make the jump to TV full-time — that distinction belongs to Will McDonough — but, after joining ESPN in 1991, he became the most prominent, a pioneer of what’s become ubiquitous today: the insider.

“If Will McDonough created the role of NFL insider,” Curtis says, “then Mort refined it, sped it up and brought it into the era of cable TV.”

Still, back then some saw it as a risky move. ESPN wasn’t yet a sports media juggernaut, and newspaper beat writers still carried considerable weight. So did Sports Illustrated.

“The other writers used to make fun of their brethren when they moved to TV,” says Chip Namias, a former PR director for the Dolphins, Oilers and Bucs. “They’d say, ‘Oh, you’re a pretty boy now? Being a newspaper guy isn’t good enough for you?’ When Mort made that jump, it was a gamble.”

It paid off — for him and ESPN. Mort brought with him the reporting chops he’d honed at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Sporting News and The National. Suddenly, he was everywhere: on “NFL Game Day,” which became “NFL Countdown,” which became “Sunday NFL Countdown.” As the league’s popularity boomed, Mort became one of the faces of the network.

More than that, he became the pulse of the NFL.

Peyton Manning used to carve out a few minutes on Sunday mornings before kickoff, hoping to catch “The Mort Report” in the locker room, Mortensen’s weekly segment in which he’d dish all the morsels of info he’d gathered during the week. “QBs watched, GMs watched, coaches watched,” Manning says. “You had to watch. Mort knew who was getting fired before the people who were actually getting fired knew.”

Back when he was a Broncos beat writer for The Rocky Mountain News and later The Denver Post, Schefter would make sure he was in his hotel room, or next to a TV at the stadium, whenever Mort was on the air.

Curtis says during his AJ-C days, Mort began every conversation with a source the same way: “Tell me something I don’t know.” But more than merely breaking news, he loved to uncover the why behind a firing or the release of a player or a trade. That took time. And trust.

“He never blindsided you with anything,” says a longtime NFL PR director, Dan Edwards, who worked for the Steelers and Jaguars. “Mort was like a boy scout.”

He was also ahead of his time. Mort was working even when he wasn’t. An example: in the early 2000s, he grew close with Archie Manning, patriarch of the most famous family in football. That led to trips down to Louisiana for the Manning Passing Academy each summer, where Mort befriended Peyton and Eli and also dozens of the top quarterback prospects in the country. “Mort was always five steps ahead of everyone else,” longtime NFL writer Peter King says. “By the time those kids got to the NFL, Mort had known them for 10 years.”

One year at camp, after a few coaches flew home early, Mort volunteered to run some drills. It was the last practice of the week, the one all the parents watch before picking up their sons. “My dad pulls up in the golf cart and sees Mort teaching these kids the three-step drop,” Peyton says, trying not to laugh. “Then he sees all the parents watching. Dad goes, ‘Well, this is it. This is officially the end of the Manning Passing Academy.’”

Peyton Manning (right), like many QBs, coaches and executives around the NFL, regularly watched “The Mort Report.” (Courtesy of the Manning Passing Academy).

Of all the star players Mort covered, he grew closest with Peyton Manning. In the winter of 2012, it was Mort who first warned the quarterback, coming off a fourth neck surgery: “Be ready, the Colts might be moving on.” They were words that might’ve seemed obvious to everyone else at the time but stung Manning nonetheless.

“Oh, wow,” the QB responded.

The two traded emails during Manning’s free agency tour a few months later. “He’d give me the lay of the land with each team, an unbiased opinion I needed,” Manning says. “I could confide in Mort. Mort could confide in me.”

Four years later, after Manning helped the Broncos win Super Bowl 50, Mort broke the news of the QB’s retirement from a hospital in Atlanta. Manning had told him the day before, asking for one last night as an NFL quarterback. Mort vowed to hold the story until morning. Markman was up all night, fearing they’d get scooped.

“We won’t get beat,” Mort kept telling him.

“He wouldn’t break his word,” Markman says now. “And of course, he was right.”

Today, Manning keeps a folder in his email of all the notes Mort sent him over the years.

One came after his first preseason game as a Bronco. Manning had sent a select few — family, friends, Mort, that’s it — a clip of him hitting a receiver on an out route, then taking a nasty hit in the pocket. It was the sequence that told him he could still play in the NFL.

“Super proud to see this,” Mort wrote back. “Enjoy this. You deserve it.”

On the job, Mort was a disciplined reporter — “the last of the old school guys,” Schefter calls him. He’d bicker with Markman, agitated over some of the segments they’d run on ESPN. Mort loathed hot takes. He’d grumble each time one of the NFL shows ran its “Safe or Out” segment, a debate about which NFL coaches were about to get fired. “These are human beings,” Mort argued. “We’re talking about people’s lives here.”

Kiper says whenever he’d get some shaky intel from a source, Mort would reach out. “We should talk,” he’d warn. “That was code for, ‘I’m hearing different,’” Kiper says.

Andrea Kremer remembers the way Mort welcomed her when she became ESPN’s first female reporter in the early 1990s. “It was always support, courtesy and respect,” she says. “This was a different time for women in the business, and when a coach or a GM sees Chris Mortensen treat you that way — as an equal — that gives you instant credibility.”

Mort’s influence was so immense, his Rolodex so envied, that at one point an NFL team actually hired him.

In 1994, the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars lured Mortensen away from ESPN for a role as vice president on the personnel side. They wanted him to help build their football team. Mort accepted the gig, only to emotionally back out a few days later, mainly because Micki didn’t want to move to Jacksonville.

“When you think about it on the surface, the job made no sense,” says Pete Prisco, a longtime NFL writer who was then covering the Jags for The Florida Times-Union. “They thought because Mort had access to all this information around the league, they could use that. But the reality was nobody was going to tell him anything now that he worked for a team.”

Plus, Kremer points out, “Mort was always a reporter at heart.”

The lone stain on Mort’s Hall of Fame résumé — he received the Dick McCann award in Canton in 2016 — arrived a few years later, after his initial report of the Patriots’ use of underinflated footballs during the early days of the Deflategate scandal later proved inaccurate. The ire of New England’s fan base trailed him for years, and Mort, by then undergoing treatment for cancer, said he received death threats. He later acknowledged errors in his reporting.

“Nothing really got to him, but when you hear vicious things about your family, things that got overtly personal, anybody would be bothered by that,” Markman says. “It got pretty bad.”

The tributes poured in after Mort passed away on March 3 at 72.

On his show, Dan Patrick told a story from his “SportsCenter” days. Mort had a scoop, and before running the story, the bosses wanted confirmation from another source. “We don’t need another source,” Patrick told them. “It’s Mort.”

“A GOAT,” Eisen called him on his show. “A trailblazer.”

Like Jeremiah, it hit Schefter hardest on draft weekend. For 15 years, they’d covered the event side-by-side. Now Mort wasn’t there.

“It was my honor,” Schefter says, “to sit next to one of the legendary figures in sports journalism for as long as I did.”

ESPN paid tribute. Booger McFarland remembered the nerves that accompanied one of his early appearances on TV and the encouraging words that came from Mort after he finished. “You don’t know how much that meant to a guy just starting in this business,” McFarland said. Louis Riddick remembered all the meetings they sat in together. “If you were talking football, and Mort was nodding his head, that was affirmation you knew what you were talking about,” he said.

On his way into Detroit for this year’s draft, Schefter was talking with his driver, Sean Malone, about how weird it would be covering the event without Mort.

“God, I loved that guy,” Malone told him.

“We all did,” Schefter replied.

Then Malone shared his own Mort story. He’d driven him to and from the airport dozens of times, mostly for the draft. And each year, after it was finished, Mort would hand him a $100 bill and tell him and the other drivers to go out and enjoy a few beers on him.

“No, no, no, I can’t take this,” Malone told him at first.

Mort wouldn’t hear it.

“Take it,” he said. “And send me a picture in a few hours so I know you guys are having a good time.”

So they did, year after year. It became a tradition.

Schefter heard that story and took the lesson to heart, one more assist from his mentor and friend. When Malone dropped Schefter off at the airport after the draft finished, Schefter handed Malone a $100 bill.

“This is from Mort,” Schefter told him.

(Photo illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; top photo courtesy of ESPN) 

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