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Column: Chris Mortensen’s battle with cancer continues, as does his stellar career

Chris Mortensen, right, and ESPN colleague Adam Schefter prepare for an “NFL Live” show during the 2019 draft.
Chris Mortensen, right, and ESPN colleague Adam Schefter prepare for an “NFL Live” show during the 2019 draft.
(Allen Kee / ESPN Images)

Chris Mortensen had a bit of a scoop.

“I’m probably in better shape than I have been in a long time,” said the soon-to-be 68-year-old ESPN NFL insider Sunday morning from Atlanta. “Maybe they have plans someday to retire me, but I’m telling you I have no plans to retire.”

In his fourth year of an ongoing battle with the aftereffects of Stage IV throat cancer, as tumors continue to appear despite immunotherapy and he learns how to function with weak saliva glands and a faulty thyroid, Mortensen doesn’t take that assessment lightly.

“I truly take each day as it comes and thank the Lord for the day when I wake up — it’s a great way to live, to be honest with you — and I think my work will prove well and maybe more effective at a different level,” he added.

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As the NFL starts its 100th season, and ESPN is about to mark its 40th anniversary, Mortensen draws energy from the fact his career in journalism began at this time 50 years ago. He had just graduated from North Torrance High School, worked at the Daily Breeze newspaper office in Torrance taking high school football scores on Friday nights, and found his passion for gathering information.

A trusted ESPN fact-gatherer since 1991, Mortensen said his revised role this season — after consultation with Seth Markman, the network’s vice president for NFL studio shows — will be more of a senior editor contributing to breaking news and content on a variety of network platforms. It best suits his lifestyle and health requirements.

He won’t travel any longer to Monday night game sites, instead flying from the Bristol, Conn., studios to his home in northwest Arkansas after his on-air hits are done that day. He will collaborate with reporters such as Adam Schefter as needed, as he did this past weekend with roster cuts and trades taking place before the league opener Thursday.

Never sell Mortensen short.

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“I know I can still get a story at the same time Schefter does, but he’ll have it out there 65 seconds on Twitter before I can even start typing it,” Mortensen said.“He’s got the fastest fingers and thumbs I’ve ever see in my life.”

David Baker presents Chris Mortensen with the Dick McCann Memorial Award in 2016, when the Professional Football Writers Assn. recognized his distinguished career.
David Baker presents Chris Mortensen with the Dick McCann Memorial Award in 2016, when the Professional Football Writers Assn. recognized his distinguished career.
(Allen Kee / ESPN Images)

He also has one of his biggest supporters on the other end of a quick text.

“He’s still the soul of that place,” Schefter said of how Mortensen controls the Sunday afternoon viewing room where network employees gather to watch NFL games. “I wouldn’t be at ESPN without him, or who I am today professionally without him. He’s a trusted advisor. He’s one of the few who understand how this job works professionally. He gets it. He’s like my brother. I love him.”

A few weeks into the 2018 season, Mortensen said he trusted Schefter enough to tell him that he felt like he “was on the edge of a health cliff about to fall off.” Unable to get out of bed, Mortensen wasn’t sure whether he was experiencing a pulmonary embolism, which he had suffered in 2012. It turned out his thyroid was depleted by medication he took for the tumors in his lungs, the latest spot where his cancer had metastasized.

Mortensen quietly missed two weeks of “NFL Sunday Countdown” because of it. About a month ago, he returned to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Austin, Texas, to get scan updates. So far, so good.

“I’ve spent this past summer checking under the hood,” said Mortensen from Atlanta, where he spent the weekend with his son, Alex, an offensive analyst on Alabama coach Nick Saban’s staff, as the Crimson Tide started their college football season with a win over Duke.

Advice from cancer survivors such as Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and longtime NFL official and Southern California native Tony Corrente has helped Mortensen navigate the cancer minefield.

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“No matter what the challenge, ESPN has been there for me every possible way,” said Mortensen, the 2016 Pro Football Hall of Fame Dick McCann Memorial Award winner for his career in the media. “I’m great with this new level of working. Adam is the lead NFL reporter, the headliner. We’ve swapped roles, and I’m good with it. I feel like a veteran player who gets out of the way for Mike Trout.

“At the same time, I have an appreciation for good journalism. There’s always a headline, and the story lead, but it’s the body of the story that’s always worth telling.”

A timing issue

The quickest way to alienate a West Coast audience is to call something that leads in to the 9 a.m. PDT game the “Big Noon Kickoff Show” and then continue to flash the graphic “Big Noon Saturday” during that 9 a.m. contest. For L.A.-based Fox to brand its revamped and sterilized star-power ramp-up program, it’s as counterproductive as taking the well-liked Dave Wannstedt element out of the show and replacing it with a more marquee name in Urban Meyer.

And the quickest way for Reggie Bush to get the attention of his new bosses at Fox is to make a reference to the competition as the former USC star did Saturday while admiring a two-handed catch by Boise State’s Khalil Shakir: “I see a lot of young guys nowadays, everyone wants that one-handed pretty catch on ESPN, but going up and high-pointing that football is so important.”

That was our high point of the day’s telecast.

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The Angels’ Fox Sports West broadcast Friday showed caution and noteworthy professionalism in delivering news of the autopsy report on the death of Tyler Skaggs. Team play-by-play man Victor Rojas reported the findings in a straightforward manner at the top of the Friday night Angels-Red Sox game broadcast, followed by clips of a news conference with Angels general manager Billy Eppler and manager Brad Ausmus. Predictably omitted was anything related to the statement from the Skaggs family that implicated a team employee’s alleged involvement in Skaggs’ death from an accidental drug overdose. After the 15-inning game ended, FSW reviewed the news again and aired an extended reaction video clip from Angels pitcher Andrew Heaney, a friend of Skaggs.

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*Management at ESPN Radio has approved a questionable move at ESPN-AM (710) to bump longtime midday hosts Steve Mason and John Ireland into the afternoon drive 3-to-6:30 p.m. slot starting Tuesday to make way for the syndicated Will Cain show (noon to 3 p.m., also simulcast on ESPNews) into the L.A. market. Messing with the success of Mason and Ireland, in their 25th year together, results in pitting them head-to-head with KLAC-AM (570) established drive-time stalwarts Petros Papadakis and Matt “Money” Smith.

*If we agree there’s a not-so-subtle difference between a broadcast that’s high energy and one that’s annoyingly loud, ESPN’s Thursday night booth starting with UCLA-Cincinnati saw newcomer Pat McAfee aggressively push Adam Amin and Matt Hasselbeck far toward the latter. Just give this McAfee virus enough exposure here and he will eventually bring about his own demise.

*Perhaps more embarrassing than a shot of a row of chest-painted bodies in the USC student section missing a “G” from a “FIGHT ON!” salute during Saturday night’s game against Fresno State was the follow-up by ESPN analyst Rod Gilmore trying to show on his telestrator that the “G” should have gone between the “H” and “T.” ESPN later clarified the gaffe in the second half.


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