The Return of Mort

Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

This spring, Chris Mortensen was standing outside the MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, when he happened to see Craig Sager. Mort — as just about every ESPN viewer knows him — has been pals with Sager since he worked in Atlanta. Now, he and Sager were joined together by illness. Mort had Stage IV throat cancer. Sager had just gotten the news that his acute myeloid leukemia had returned.

"Craig!" Mort called out. Sager turned. He looked at Mort blankly. It was at that point that Mort realized his formerly cherubic face, which has been on TV nonstop for 25 years, was almost unrecognizable. Chemotherapy treatments had caused his hair to fall out. Mort thought he looked like a Cabbage Patch Kid and had taken to pulling on a baseball cap. He had lost more than 50 pounds at MD Anderson. For subsequent radiation treatments, the doctors had to pull several of his teeth.

The other day Mort was on the phone from Arkansas, reporting this with the same dispassion he’d use to deliver an injury update. When writing about cancer, it’s tempting to fall into the language of inspiration. Mort doesn’t speak that language. He talked about his treatment and recovery as he does about pro football: in short, telling anecdotes. Here are some of them.

When Mort was enduring a grueling round of chemotherapy in Houston, he complained to his doctor, Merrill Kies. Kies patted Mort on the shoulder and said, "It’s a tough yard." A few weeks later, after another round of chemo, Mort made the same complaint. "I told you it was a tough yard," Kies said.

While Mort was in the cancer ward, his phone glowed with bits of inside dope sent to him by sources around the NFL. In the old days, he would have taken the intel and raced to Twitter. But addled by "chemo brain," Mort found himself glancing at the texts and not following up. "My focus had to be somewhere else," he said. "It kind of remains like that, to be honest with you."

Back home in Arkansas and with his original tumor virtually undetectable, Mort has done five remote shots for ESPN. The network greeted this as a triumphant return to TV, but it’s also a reminder of how far Mort has to go. He is only two months removed from eating through a tube — radiation took such a toll on this throat that he has had to teach himself how to swallow again. For now Mort’s diet consists largely of oatmeal. He will sometimes put on a pair of gym shorts, stand in front of a mirror, and gaze at the figure before him in the same, dumbfounded way that Sager did. "I can’t recognize myself," Mort said.

At 64, Chris Mortensen is one of sports TV’s most decorated information men. But being an "insider" is less a job than an animating theory of Mort’s life. Back in the ’80s, when Mort worked as a sportswriter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, friends found that when he wanted to repay a kindness, he didn’t buy them a beer. He brought them inside dope.

Once, the feature writer Ed Hinton was worrying aloud that a rival in the sports department had gotten a bigger annual raise than he had.

Mort reached into his desk and pulled out a sheet of paper. It was the secret list of the raises that had been doled out in the department.

"How’d you get that?" Hinton asked.

"It’s so easy, Eddie," Mort said. Every year, he simply cadged the list from the sports editor’s office, made himself a copy, and plundered it like he later would a document from NFL headquarters.

Mort grew up in Torrance, outside of Los Angeles. During the Vietnam War, he remembered two uniformed servicemen arriving at the house next door. They had come to tell a neighbor her son had been killed in action; the woman let out a scream that haunted Mort for years. Mort was drafted and spent two years in a stateside Army medical records facility. But by the time he got to Atlanta, any angst he might have had was buried under a veneer of cool.

Under editor Van McKenzie, the Journal-Constitution was building a sports page that would rival the Boston Globe’s. Mort wasn’t much of a wordsmith but he was an ingenious reporter whose affability got subjects to open up. "Mort’s ambition was to find out all the neat stuff he could and tell everybody about it," said Hinton. In the newsroom, Mort always seemed to have a phone to his ear, instructing his source on the other end to "tell me something I don’t know …"

In the ’80s, investigative sports reporters earned their spurs by exposing NCAA scandals. Mort’s great scoop was bigger than most. He broke open the story of Norby Walters, which went beyond mere pay-for-play and became the tale of Walters’s silent business partner, a mafia capo breaking his omertà. In the book Mort wrote about the affair, he could hardly be blamed for throwing in a third-person salute to the "sensational stories" he himself had written.

As a reporter, Mort was famous for his discretion. "I would always say, ‘Protect me on this,’" said Ernie Accorsi, the former general manager of the New York Giants. Any writer can honor off-the-record. But many put a statute of limitations on it. When the controversy du jour has subsided, the writer will casually burn his source. According to Accorsi, Mort always called and asked permission to move material onto the record.

Years later, when Mort was working at ESPN, Keith Olbermann helped him break an NFL story. The story proved hugely embarrassing for its subject — so much so that Mort was later denounced in the media by the very source who’d leaked the story. "To me, that kind of proactive, gratuitous dishonesty erases a journalist’s obligation to confidentiality …" Olbermann wrote in an email. "Not to Mort. He wouldn’t say a word in return."

"I was in the business 45 years," Accorsi said. "If you asked me to name one person who disliked Mort or didn’t respect him, I never heard of anybody."

Even by the standards of sportswriters in the swingin’ ’80s, Mort was a noted sybarite. Around the Journal-Constitution office, he was called "Werewolf Mort" because he came out at night. When Mort was a single man on the Braves beat, he seemed to have a date in every city in the old National League West. (One colleague was amused to learn the women in L.A. called him "Le Mort.") He would fly across the country to catch a Bruce Springsteen show.

Chris Mortensen and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam (AP Images)

Though TV requires him to pose as a serious information man, Mort was also one of the industry’s legendary pranksters. He once forged a memo from McKenzie to Hinton, asking why Hinton had failed to win a journalism award. Only after Hinton had stormed into McKenzie’s office and confronted his editor did he look back across the newsroom to see Mort doubled over in laughter. After road trips, Mort joined the Journal-Constitution writers’ contest to see who could submit the most outrageous expense report. Mort’s editors wondered: How did he watch every single pay movie available in his hotel room when he was out reporting all day?

In the early ’90s, Mort’s house in Atlanta had an intercom system. Around 10 every morning, the voice of Christian evangelists like David Jeremiah came blaring out of it. Mort’s wife, Micki, had put them on the radio. Mort later said he sometimes found himself dropping whatever scoop he was chasing and just listening.

Mort met Micki, who was working part-time for the Braves, when he was the team’s beat writer. They dated for a year and married in 1984. When Mort became a father, he asked the Journal-Constitution to switch him to the more humane schedule of covering the Falcons — a move that started his career in NFL reporting.

The idea that Chris Mortensen would become a man of God shocked his newspaper colleagues. The Old Mort, as they came to call him, showed no signs of a spiritual crisis. He genuinely liked his life. Glenn Hannigan, a former Journal-Constitution sports editor who later became a United Methodist pastor, said: "Out of all the miraculous conversions I’ve seen — and I’ve seen some pretty extraordinary ones — hearing that Mort had become a believer and a committed one is pretty close to the top of the list."

But the spiritual world had been on Mort’s mind for years. As the Braves’ beat man, he talked religion with Dale Murphy, the outfielder and two-time NL MVP. Murphy is a Mormon; Mort had been raised in the Mormon church. Murphy told him that if he ever wanted to come back to the church, the door was always open.

Mort was on a different path. For three or four years, he listened to the evangelists speaking through the intercom of his house. (He would later become friends with David Jeremiah and shepherd the career of his son, Daniel, who now works for the NFL Network.) After a time, Mort concluded he was "spiritually-wired." He and Micki attended First Baptist Church in Douglasville, Georgia, and typically sat in the first few rows. But Mort was still "fighting" the final step — accepting Jesus as his savior.

One Sunday in 1993, Mort was at First Baptist. The preacher was performing an altar call — a chance for parishioners to commit themselves to Jesus. "I’d never had any motivation to answer the call," Mort told me. But that day, "I felt like someone shoved me out of my seat." The sensation was "almost supernatural," Mort said another time. He jumped up, took a few steps down the aisle, and approached the preacher.

As it turned out, Micki’s efforts on behalf of her husband’s soul had gone beyond playing sermons over the intercom. Every Wednesday she asked other members of the church to pray that Mort would accept Jesus as his savior. That Sunday, as Mort stood at the front of the sanctuary, he turned and saw that the most amazing thing. The congregation was giving him a standing ovation.

Later, remembering the antics of his former, less pious life, Mort asked a pal, "So when does the statute of limitations run out on this stuff?"

"I’m going to get big!" Mort told his colleague Dave Kindred in 1991. For decades, the ambitions of an ace sports reporter had been limited to working at newspapers (Mort later wrote for The National), Sports Illustrated, and maybe writing a few books. Mort was about to leave the bounds of print entirely. He would join ESPN and become a new kind of creature: an insider.

The archetypal NFL insider was Will McDonough, of the Globe, who moonlighted on two network pregame shows. Unsure of whether he was right for TV, Mort asked McDonough how he dealt with the medium’s time constraints, its pithiness.

"Just give ’em the headlines, kid," McDonough told him.

"But, Will, we hate headlines because they distort the news," Mort said.

"OK," McDonough said. "Give ’em a caption!"

As it turned out, Mort couldn’t have arrived at ESPN at a more ideal moment. By 1991, the network had discovered that its road to profitability lay in barnacling itself to the NFL: through a weekly pregame show, NFL PrimeTime, and Sunday Night Football. In the words of former network CEO Steve Bornstein, pro football was ESPN’s "crack cocaine." For Mort, ESPN offered a chance to outflank the competition: While newspaper reporters had to wait till the next morning, Mort could be on the air within hours.

On the eve of the 1995 draft, Mort reported that NFL security had told teams that Warren Sapp had failed seven drug tests at the University of Miami. Sapp’s draft stock crashed (he wound up falling out of the top 10), and Mort’s reporting was fiercely denied by Sapp and his college coach, Dennis Erickson.

At the end of the weekend, Mort pulled aside ESPN’s Fred Gaudelli, who now produces Sunday Night Football for NBC, and said he was disappointed. ESPN announcers had referred to the story on air as a rumor or a report rather than a scoop sourced to a specific league report. It was as if TV’s penchant for giving ’em the headline had distorted the news. The same year, an ESPN ad noted, with irony it probably didn’t intend, "Mortensen’s excellent investigative reporting skills provide an outstanding counterpoint to the other ESPN personalities."

The New Mort was new in more ways than just piety. His Journal-Constitution buddies noticed that he’d shaved the mustache he’d worn for years. Back at the newspaper, Glenn Hannigan said, Mort "dressed like John Fogerty from Creedence." The New Mort always wore a suit. "We figured somebody must have bought one for him," said Mike Tierney, another former Journal-Constitution editor.

Around Bristol, Mort was a made man, one of the few people who could crack a joke about Chris Berman’s appearance and have it met with an indulgent shake of the head. In 2009, Mort blessed the network’s hiring of Adam Schefter from the NFL Network, even though it meant turning his solo act into a duet. In fact, Mort flattered Schefter, who was 15 years younger, taking him to a steak dinner after he came on board. "It was love at first sight for me," Schefter said.

By 2009, Mort no longer had a virtual monopoly on TV insiderdom. Fox’s Jay Glazer, NBC’s Peter King and Mike Florio, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, and a secondary forest of insiders across the web were all joining the battle for scoops. Even the lousiest news bites sent everyone rushing to Twitter. "You’re walking that high wire every day in front of a crowd," Schefter said, "and there are people just waiting for you to fall off that high wire and go splat."

Schefter found that Mort’s air of serenity was every bit as unshakeable as it had been in Atlanta. For their joint appearances on Monday Night Countdown, Mort and Schefter divvied up the scoops so that each would have a few to announce on the air. One night, it was decided that Mort would deliver the injury update report on running back Ryan Mathews that Schefter had been working on. Mort told ESPN viewers that Mathews would play in his next game.

"We get done with the segment," Schefter recalled. "I turn to him and say, ‘Ryan Mathews is playing? Where’d you get that?’

"He said, ‘I thought you said that.’

"I said, ‘I didn’t say that!’"

To which Mort shrugged and said: "He’s playing now." (As it turned out, Mathews did play that week, making Mort right once again.)

For major stories, Mort and Schefter could join together and form a kind of überinsider. In 2013, the Dolphins’ Richie Incognito challenged Schefter’s reporting about his locker room bullying and dared him on Twitter to "bring it." That Sunday, Mort went on Countdown and unloaded a new round of damning reporting about Incognito. The scoops could be read as a kind of message. "The little brother was being picked on," Schefter explained, "and the big brother was stepping in to defend the little brother."

By January 2015, it wasn’t much of a stretch to say that viewers trusted Mort’s pronouncements far more than anything that came out of Roger Goodell’s mouth. That’s what made Mort’s Deflategate episode so unusual. Early in the morning on January 19, Indianapolis reporter Bob Kravitz broke the story that the NFL was investigating the Patriots for deflating footballs. The scoop was confirmed by Newsday’s Bob Glauber. The following night, Mort got curious. He asked a source, "How many balls are we talking about?" The source came back not just with a number, but told Mort that 11 balls were underinflated by 2 pounds. Mort tweeted the information.

After the tweet, a second source, with whom Mort had a better relationship, urged him to adopt a broader description: that the balls were merely "significantly underinflated." In that tweezers-sized distinction, you could see a preview of the madness that would become Deflategate. Mort told me, "That should have raised the journalist in me to a higher level. I’ve got to ask some more questions here. What are we talking about, 2 pounds under? But, no, I got to get on TV." He had to be an insider.

In appearances on TV and radio, Mort said he immediately backtracked to the safer ground of "significantly underinflated." But Mort’s January 20 tweet and story that contained the 2 pounds per square inch number remained uncorrected for more than six months — even as Rapoport offered contradictory reporting. Mort said he made more phone calls during that period but found the NFL had gone silent. "I remember asking people in the league office, ‘Is there stuff we need to clarify?’" Mort said. "Basically, it was like, ‘Hey, let Ted Wells do his job.’"

It’s not in dispute that Mort got a fact wrong and failed to correct it promptly in two forums. Beyond that, his critics make two points. One is that Mort’s tweet was part of a chain reaction that caused the sprawling Deflategate investigation. "[I]t turned a curiosity into a hashtag," Mike Florio wrote, "making the decision to hire ‘independent’ investigator Ted Wells a no-brainer." The verbs in that sentence reveal that there’s actually no proof that Mort’s report forced the NFL to investigate numbers it knew were wrong. The league could have corrected the information the next day if it wanted to.

The second point is more interesting. It’s basically that Mort misunderstood the changing nature of insiderdom. It’s no longer ESPN TV but Twitter that has become the permanent record of an insider — a headline, as Will McDonough had it, that’s carved into stone tablets.

In greater Boston, Mort was placed on the Deflategate enemies list alongside the likes of Kravitz and league apparatchik Mike Kensil. "His reputation is shattered," WEEI’s Kirk Minihane wrote in a typical bazooka blast. Florio said of Pats fans, "I don’t expect them to ever believe anything the guy ever says again." Mort remained Zen. "He was very calm about all this," Schefter said. "If that were me, I would have been a basket case."

Mort’s cool began to melt only when he started to get a number of death threats. "What bothered me is we’re in an era where if your wife goes onto social media, she basically reads that they want you to die," Mort said. "Even after I got cancer, I got some death wishes."

The Mortensens live in Arkansas. But when Mort was working in Bristol, they often stayed in a house they leased in Connecticut. As the Deflategate threats began to pile up, Mort told Micki he didn’t want her traveling to Connecticut anymore. "My job is to protect her," he said. When Mort himself came to Bristol, he behaved like someone who was living under a public threat. He went straight from the ESPN studio to his home, avoiding restaurants and rarely appearing in public.

Mort checked into MD Anderson in January. At first glance, he seemed to be carrying on as an insider. After the Super Bowl, Mort got on Twitter and reported the retirement of his old pal Peyton Manning. "[B]ecause I’ve known him for so long," Manning wrote in an email, "it just felt like it would make a lot of sense for him to be the one to break that news."

Peyton Manning and Chris Mortensen (Getty Images)

A pause in Mort’s treatments coincided with the run-up to the NFL draft, which has long been one of his favorite events. Before this year’s draft, Seth Markman, who produces ESPN’s NFL studio shows, told staffers assembled at a hotel in Chicago, "Before we get started, somebody wants to say something." Mort’s voice came through the speakerphone. By the time he finished speaking, half the room was in tears.

Mort then began a course of intensive radiation treatments. He found himself "locked down on a table," he said, "with a custom-fitted mask looking like something Hannibal Lecter would wear." MD Anderson allows patients to play music during such treatments, and initially Mort listened to Bruce Springsteen. But hearing "I’m on Fire" while being pelted with radiation proved a little too close to the mark. Mort told the doctors to switch to gospel music.

Back in January, when Mort first told Micki he had throat cancer, "She literally crumpled to the floor …" he said. "I remember telling her, ‘I’m not going to die.’ That’s not knowing whether I would die from this." He paused. "I still don’t know."

Over the next few months, Micki Mortensen morphed from a wife into a full-time caregiver. "Seeing her deal with it on an emotional level …" Mort recalled. "Literally having to empty your — to tend to your basic needs." When the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah called to tell Mort he was praying for him, Mort would reply, without fail, "Pray for my wife."

Bristol is no more impervious to rumors than any other outpost in sports media. Mort’s health caused enormous angst. On Sundays, Mort and Schefter typically met at 7:45 a.m. in the ESPN cafeteria to eat breakfast before Countdown. Now, Schefter found himself dining alone. "Doing Sunday NFL Countdown without Mort has been like my forgetting to tie my shoes," said Berman. "We do the show, and it’s fun and fine, but there’s a little wobble to it."

Early in his treatment, friends like Suzy Kolber called Mort in Houston to check in. As Mort’s voice was weakened by radiation treatments, he mostly retreated to text messages. If he responded to a text, his coworkers figured he was having a good day. If he didn’t, many began to fear the worst. It was only a year earlier that Stuart Scott had died of cancer.

"You hear the words ‘Stage IV’ come out," said Markman, "and all of a sudden that takes you to some pretty dark places. … Do you ask, ‘What are your chances? What are your odds?’ You don’t want to ask a guy that."

In May, Markman visited Mort in Houston, and found him in bed watching an old college football game on the SEC Network. He’d lost his hair and looked painfully thin; chemo and radiation affected both his posture and balance, so he never got out of bed. Markman said, "I remember thinking afterwards, Now I know why some people give up the fight."

"In my faith," Mort said, "our time on earth is just a short span in what we believe is an eternal walk. At the same time, it’s the only walk I know right now, so I’m selfish about the time I have on this earth."

Mort had his last radiation treatment in late spring. In August, he appeared at the NFL’s Hall of Fame weekend to accept the Dick McCann Award, which is pro football writing’s equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. On August 31, he announced his cancer had been "virtually reduced to zero detection of the disease."

What Mort didn’t realize was that the period of rehabilitation that lay before him could stretch on for years. "I can feel for a week like I’m coming out of this," he said. "Another week, I’m trying to clear whatever this crud that is deep in my throat just so I can have conversations with people. You live your day in three- or four-hour blocks."

Mort desperately wanted to get back on TV. He picked the Friday, September 23, edition of NFL Insiders so he could appear with his pal Kolber. Mort wasn’t up to traveling, so ESPN found an SEC Network bureau camera at the University of Arkansas that wasn’t far from his house. Producers decided to parcel out his segments throughout the show to protect his fragile voice. When Mort talked to Kolber a few minutes before airtime, he told her he was nervous.

Mort was afraid he might wake up feeling badly that morning, and that canceling a scheduled appearance would set off a fresh round of worrying about his health. Thus, very few people within ESPN were informed of his appearance on NFL Insiders. Even Adam Schefter, who prides himself on knowing everything, was stunned when a coworker stopped him and said, "Mort’s on TV." It was a fitting way for the ultimate insider to return. Once again, Chris Mortensen had managed to keep a secret.

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