Chris Mortensen, the longtime NFL reporter and analyst for ESPN, is temporarily stepping down from his ESPN assignments because of Stage IV throat cancer.
ESPN NFL Insiders host Suzy Kolber announced her colleague’s diagnosis on that program this afternoon. According to sources, Mortensen has been feeling sick for the past couple of months.
“More than a week ago, I was diagnosed with a Stage IV throat cancer,” Mortensen said in a statement on Friday. “My focus shifted significantly to gathering information about the specifics of this cancer. The initial diagnosis was confirmed Friday and there is another test remaining that will determine the best possible treatment plan that will commence in the very immediate future. Consequently, with the support and encouragement from ESPN president John Skipper and many others at ESPN, I am temporarily stepping away from my normal NFL coverage duties to better engage this opportunity to fight the good fight that is projected to affect almost 1.7 million Americans with new cases in 2016.
“I have many inspirational examples of men, women and children who have faced this very fight. We all know somebody, right? I also have the love and prayers of my wife Micki, my family, my friends, colleagues and, most of all, my faith that serve as sources of tremendous strength. I have a peace about this and look forward to the battle.”
The 64-year-old has been a central figure in ESPN’s football coverage since joining the network in 1991, and was currently appearing on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, Monday Night Countdown, SportsCenter, NFL Live, NFL Insiders and other programs, in addition to being part of ESPN’s annual Super Bowl week and NFL draft coverage. He also makes regular appearances on ESPN Radio.
In an interview with SI.com on Friday afternoon, Adam Schefter, the longtime NFL colleague of Mortensen, said he and a core group of ESPN NFL staffers learned of the diagnosis last Friday in an email. “It was jarring, a professional and personal whammy,” Schefter said. “I consider him one of my closest friends. If I have issues in my life, he knows everything. He keeps me upbeat, grounded, a great friend, a great sounding board, I love the guy.”
Schefter said he has spoken and texted with Mortensen every day for the past week, often multiple times a day. He said Mortensen has not gotten treatment yet but remains upbeat and practical about what is facing him.
“He’s very matter of fact about it, like he is working the details of the story,” Schefter said. “He has a positive attitude. He is convinced that he will beat this.”
Prior to ESPN, Mortensen covered the NFL for The National Sports Daily (1989–90), and the Braves (1983–85), Falcons (1985–86) and the NFL (1987–89) for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. He won the prestigious George Polk Award in 1987 for his reporting on the subversion of amateurism by sports agents and college athletes. Professionally, he also worked for Sport Magazine and The Sporting News. He attended El Camino College before serving two years in the Army. He has covered every Super Bowl since 1979.
It has been a tough professional year for Mortensen as he has been the centerpiece of the animus Boston fans (and certain Boston-based media outlets) have had for what they perceive to be ESPN’s biased reporting on Deflategate. Boston Globe writer Chad Finn offered a primer on that here. Multiple sources at ESPN told Sports Illustrated in September that a number of ESPN’s NFL and OTL staffers received threatening phone calls, emails and tweets—well beyond the usual sports media criticism or angry social media blasts—over the network’s reporting of the Patriots and allegations of cheating. Some tweets have included threats of physical violence. Another source said ESPN security has been involved. Mortensen was one of the staffers targeted.
“Our thoughts are with Chris and his family as he faces this challenge,” said ESPN president John Skipper. “He is an extremely respected colleague, who has the complete support of his entire ESPN family. We wish him strength and hope in the battle ahead and look forward to his return whenever he chooses.”
Mortensen and his wife, Micki, have two adult children, including son Alex, who played college football at Arkansas and Samford, and served as an offensive graduate assistant for Alabama this season.
It’s been a tough couple of years for ESPN regarding cancer-related illnesses. Stuart Scott, a popular anchor at ESPN, passed away after a fight with stomach cancer last January at the age of 49. On a more positive note, Shelley Smith, the longtime west coast-based SportsCenter reporter, announced on Oct. 1, 2014, that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Following multiple radiation treatments, the cancer is in remission and she said she is “basically cancer-free.”