Chris Mortensen, ESPN’s Longtime N.F.L. Insider, Dies at 72

Chris Mortensen, an award-winning sportswriter who pioneered the role of the N.F.L. insider, reporting omnivorously for various ESPN programs on trades, the draft, free-agent signings, injuries, retirements and scandals, died on Sunday in Birmingham, Ala. He was 72.

His death, at the home of his son, Alex, was announced by ESPN, which did not give a cause. In 2016, Mr. Mortensen underwent treatment for Stage 4 throat cancer. He lived in Bella Vista, Ark., in the northwest corner of the state.

Until he stepped away from the network last year, Mort, as he was known, dispensed news on programs like “SportsCenter,” “Sunday N.F.L. Countdown” and “Monday N.F.L. Countdown,” as well as on ESPN Radio.

He was not sports journalism’s first N.F.L. insider. Will McDonough probably had that distinction, writing authoritatively for The Boston Globe and appearing on N.F.L. pregame shows on CBS and NBC. Mr. Mortensen was followed by a raft of rivals including Peter King, at Sports Illustrated and then NBC; Jay Glazer, at Fox Sports; Mike Florio, at Pro Football Talk; and Adam Schefter, at the NFL Network.

In 2009, Mr. Schefter became Mr. Mortensen’s partner at ESPN in reporting league news.

“When we were interviewing Adam Schefter, his biggest promoter at ESPN was Chris Mortensen,” John Walsh, a former executive editor at ESPN, said in a phone interview on Monday. Mr. Mortensen did not see Mr. Schefter as his potential replacement or as a threat, Mr. Walsh added.

“Mort was the quintessential team player,” he said.

Mr. King recalled how he admired Mr. Mortensen’s prescient decision in the mid-1990s to visit the fledgling Manning Passing Academy, which was started by Archie Manning, the former New Orleans Saints quarterback, before his sons Peyton and Eli entered the N.F.L. The summer camp is for youths from eighth to 12th grades.

“Every great future college quarterback went there, and year after year Mort was there on the ground floor,” Mr. King said. “Our job was to know all the quarterbacks and get them to tell us things. Mort knew every quarterback from high school on. He was very smart about relationships.”

Mr. Mortensen and Mr. Schefter broke the news that Peyton Manning was signing with the Denver Broncos in 2012 after 13 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. Four years later, early in his grueling monthslong cancer treatment, a hospitalized Mr. Mortensen received a call from Mr. Manning saying that he was going to announce his retirement.

Writing for Sports Illustrated in 2017, Mr. King, who himself retired last week, recounted the conversation between the player and the ailing journalist.

“Do you want to report it?” Mr. Manning asked.

“I think I would,” Mr. Mortensen replied. “It’d make me feel normal again.”

In 2016, Mr. Mortensen received the Dick McCann (now Bill Nunn) Award from the Professional Football Writers of America for distinguished coverage of the game. He received the award at the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony.

One of his biggest stories turned out to be erroneous. In early 2015, after the American Football Conference championship game between the Colts and New England Patriots, he posted a tweet and an online article reporting that the N.F.L. was investigating the Patriots for underinflating 11 of the 12 game balls by two pounds per square inch.

He later clarified in a follow-up report by saying that the balls had been merely “significantly underinflated” but not necessarily by two pounds p.s.i. (An underinflated ball is an easier throw.)

But Mr. Mortensen left the original tweet and online story uncorrected for six months, even after a league investigation showed that only one ball had been underinflated by as much as two pounds p.s.i. (He stuck with his claim that 11 balls had been involved.) Then he deleted the tweet and the article.

He later acknowledged that the deletions were a mistake.

Mr. Mortensen received a lot of criticism, some of it from Patriots fans, for his reporting in what came to be known as “Deflategate.” The league investigation led to, among other things, the suspension in 2015 of New England’s quarterback, Tom Brady, for four regular-season games without pay for not fully cooperating with the probe; a federal judge reversed the penalty.

Mr. Mortensen was less concerned about the criticism than he was about the death threats he received. “Even after I got cancer, I got some death wishes,” he told The Ringer, the sports and pop culture website and podcasting network, in 2016.

Christian Anthony Mortensen was born on Nov. 7, 1951, in Torrance, Calif. He attended El Camino College, a two-year school, starting in 1969. During that year he was hired to write about sports for The Daily Breeze, also in Torrance.

He stayed there until 1983, when he moved to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he covered the Atlanta Braves and Falcons and the N.F.L. more broadly.

In 1987, he won a George Polk Award, one of journalism’s top prizes, for a year of investigative reporting on a scandal involving agents in college sports. He was the first sportswriter to win a Polk since Red Smith received that honor in 1950.

Mr. Mortensen left the Journal-Constitution in 1989 to join The National Sports Daily, where he worked for about two years as a reporter and a columnist before the publication went out of business in 1991. He also spent time in 1990 as a reporter on the CBS Sports pregame show “The N.F.L. Today” after Mr. McDonough left for NBC.

Mr. Mortensen joined ESPN in 1991, a time when the network was becoming increasingly reliant on N.F.L. news and programming. He became one of ESPN’s signature reporters, showing up on network broadcasts throughout the week with nuggets of news that showed how deeply he was wired into team and league decision makers.

Seth Markman, ESPN’s vice president and executive producer of the network’s N.F.L. and college football coverage, said in an interview that Mr. Mortensen changed direction after returning to work from his cancer treatments.

“He focused on bigger things, the bigger picture, more context, more about why decisions were made,” Mr. Markman said. “He was still very much our conscience, and Adam and I leaned on him so much: Should we report this? Is this fair?”

Mr. Markman added that Mr. Mortensen sometimes had difficulty speaking on TV after his cancer diagnosis.

“He struggled making saliva,” Mr. Markman said. “He said, ‘You have to help me. If I get to the point where I’m being incoherent, pull me off.’ He never got to that point.”

But after the N.F.L. draft last year, Mr. Markman added, “he reached out.”

“He thought it was time to walk away.”

In addition to his son, Alex, the offensive coordinator of the football team at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Mr. Mortensen’s survivors include his wife, Micki Mortensen.

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