Marchand: Chris Mortensen was a pioneer in media, and he did it with class

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Chris Mortensen was a legendary insider before social media turned deadlines from days to seconds. His rise in the early 1990s from newspapers to ESPN occurred at a time when the Sunday pregame shows were still paramount.

For viewers who grew up with the network, there will be something eternally special remembering “NFL Sunday Countdown” host Chris Berman’s inflection as he ended some lead-in with a nickname familiar to all football fans — “Mort!”

Mortensen would then give a morsel of information that no one else knew about. It was delivered with a fairness and respect for his subject that led to more and more scoops. Sunday after Sunday and, soon after, all days in between.

What always stood out about “Mort” was his decency. It was demonstrated in his role bringing in his successor, Adam Schefter.

In a world where reporters fought to be on ESPN’s “Bottom Line,” Mortensen not only moved over and made room for Schefter in 2009, but pushed for Schefter’s hiring behind the scenes.

While many in the business — even ones on the highest of perches — guard their spot with vanity and pettiness, Mortensen welcomed Schefter as his tag-team partner.

“Mort backed it, supported it, signed off on it,” Schefter told The Athletic on Sunday.

Mortensen, who died Sunday at 72, was a legendary figure in sports media, part of the transformation of how sports reporting was presented.

There were NFL insiders before Mortensen on TV. For one, Will McDonough, on the Sunday pregame shows on CBS and NBC, gave prominence to the idea of an information person on the set. But the game changed when ESPN’s news editor, John Walsh, decided to lean in at the network.

In 1988, Peter Gammons arrived on baseball. Three years later, it was Mortensen on the NFL. They were print guys on TV. They reported, telling people information before they could read it. Quickly, ESPN competed — and won, a lot — at being the center of the sports news game.

In the 1990s, before the explosion of the internet, those scoops had even more staying power because the competition couldn’t just confirm or aggregate a report in moments and take it as their own. ESPN would declare itself “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” and it didn’t hurt their cause that they had the likes of Gammons and Mortensen as their top insiders.

It is hard to imagine Mortensen ever doing a “WWL” touchdown dance after a scoop. He always came across as more of a Barry Sanders, handing the ball to the ref. But Mortensen helped make ESPN’s bold claim true.

While he was not perfect and had his regrets about the infamous Patriots “Deflategate” story, he had what is most important for any reporter — a reputation for trust.

“I remember when I was at NFL Network,” Schefter said, referencing his previous employer. “It was not so much one scoop. It was just the volume of scoops.”

And Schefter added, you knew they were right.

Mortensen became a big TV star, but never acted like one. From production assistants to his fellow insiders, he acted the right way. The way he treated Schefter is just one example.

“I wouldn’t be at ESPN today if it weren’t for Mort,” Schefter said.

It was more than just Mortensen being magnanimous in Schefter’s hiring. In 1988, when Gammons showed up on baseball, and in 1991, when Mortensen arrived on the NFL, if they weren’t the right guys at the right time at the right network, then what is normal now — insiders everywhere on TV and elsewhere — would fail to exist.

Mortensen did not only have exclusive information, but he had a strong delivery. He was likable, both on and off the screen.

“There was a decency to him that most people just didn’t have,” Schefter said.

(Photo: A. Messerschmidt / Getty Images)

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