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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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How Chris Mortensen Paid It Forward at ESPN

  • Josina Anderson and others recall how Mort welcomed them to the big time.
  • That followed some advice from the late Will McDonough.
Feb 6, 2010; Hollywood, FL, USA; Chris Mortensen emcees the Super Bowl Breakfast at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When Chris Mortensen passed away Sunday, I thought back to a conversation I had with the consummate NFL insider about mentorship.

After the longtime newspaper reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National joined ESPN, in 1991, he said he found himself feeling insecure about how he came across on TV. So Mortensen told me he reached out to the late Will McDonough, the pioneering columnist for The Boston Globe who had been one of the first NFL TV insiders, with NBC and CBS.

The fearsome South Boston native assured Mortensen he was doing fine. Insiders didn’t have to be “pretty” to be on TV, McDonough said. As long as they provided valuable information to the viewers.

It was a lesson in career mentorship that Mortensen never forgot. For the feisty McDonough, who once belted Patriots cornerback Raymond Clayborn during a locker room argument, it would have been easy to bigfoot the new kid challenging him on the NFL TV beat. Instead, McDonough fitted Mortensen with wings that helped his nascent TV career take off.

Sports TV is cutthroat, ultracompetitive, but Mortensen tried to pay it forward throughout his ESPN career. When ESPN promoted Josina Anderson to be the network’s first female national NFL insider, in 2015, Mortensen, by then an established awards-winner, could have treated her like a junior reporter—instead, he welcomed ESPN’s first female national insider to the team, alongside himself and Adam Schefter. 

And Anderson grew. She tells me she learned from Mortensen how he made his on-air hits feel like a “conversation” instead of a lecture from a reporter—and if you didn’t have your best day on the air, he was there to give you a lift, she says.

“Not many people had the task of having to sit between Adam Schefter and Christ Mortensen at [age] 30—and having to find your comfort between those two on the same set,” says Anderson, now a senior NFL insider for CBS Sports. “But Mort always made me feel that it was a warm chair.”

Mortensen wasn’t perfect. He swung and missed with his Deflategate reporting on Tom Brady and the Patriots. Still, as sports media members mourned Mortensen’s death at age 72 on Sunday, it struck me how many of the tributes focused on his personality and his generosity toward others.

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, for one, broke down on the air at the combine as he recalled how Mortensen took him under his wing as a college kid and got him a job at ESPN. “He was my mentor. He was one of my best friends,” said Jeremiah, his voice breaking, with tears in his eyes. 

Scott Shapiro, now the senior vice president of Fox Sports Radio, recalled his days working as a producer for ESPN Radio’s long-running Mike & Mike. As he wrote on X (formerly Twitter): After cohosting the morning show one day, Mortensen asked whether his appearance fee could be redirected toward ESPN’s behind-the-scenes staffers. “When told it didn’t work that way, he still chose not to accept payment,” Shapiro wrote.

And of course, there was his long-running partnership with Schefter. Schefter is now the NFL’s premier information broker, but it wasn’t always that way. When Schefter jumped to ESPN from the NFL Network, in 2009, Mortensen, instead of freezing out the young challenger, blessed the hiring—even if it “meant turning his solo act into a duet,” as Bryan Curtis wrote on The Ringer. Mortensen welcomed Schefter with a steak dinner. “It was love at first sight.” Shades of Mortensen and McDonough.

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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