Award-winning ESPN NFL reporter Chris Mortensen dies at 72

Chris Mortensen, an award-winning journalist who reported on the NFL for ESPN for more than three decades, died Sunday morning at the age of 72, his family announced.

Mortensen joined ESPN in 1991 and was a regular contributor to the network’s NFL shows and “SportsCenter.” He was a regular news breaker for ESPN, including the news in 2016 that quarterback Peyton Manning was retiring from the NFL.

In 2016, he received the Pro Football Writers of America’s Dick McCann Award and was honored during the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s enshrinement ceremony in August that year.

“Mort was widely respected as an industry pioneer and universally beloved as a supportive, hard-working teammate,” Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN, said in a statement. “He covered the NFL with extraordinary skill and passion, and was at the top of his field for decades. He will truly be missed by colleagues and fans, and our hearts and thoughts are with his loved ones.”

ESPN’s Adam Schefter, a longtime colleague of Mortensen’s on ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown,” said on social media: “An absolutely devastating day. Mort was one of the greatest reporters in sports history, and an even better man. Sincerest condolences to his family, and all who knew and loved him. So many did. Mort was the very best. He will be forever missed and remembered.”

Mortensen, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer in January 2016, stepped away from his role at ESPN last year “to focus on my health, family and faith,” he said.

“Mort helped set the journalism standard in the early days of ESPN. His credibility, attention to detail and reporting skills catapulted our news and information to a new level,” Norby Williamson, executive editor and head of studio production for ESPN, said in a statement. “More importantly, he was a great teammate and human being. He personified care and respect for people which became the culture of ESPN.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Mortensen’s death was a “sad day for everyone in the NFL.”

“I admired how hard Chris worked to become one of the most influential and revered reporters in sports,” Goodell said in a statement. “He earned our respect and that of many others with his relentless pursuit of news but also with the kindness he extended to everyone he met. He will be greatly missed by many of us in the league who were fortunate to know him well beyond the stories he broke each Sunday.

“We send our condolences to his family, his colleagues and the many people Chris touched throughout his well-lived life.”

Manning, in a post to Instagram, wrote that he was “heartbroken” by the news of Mortensen’s death.

“We lost a true legend,” Manning said in his post. “Mort was the best in the business and I cherished our friendship. I trusted him with my announcement to sign with the Broncos and with the news of my retirement. I will miss him dearly and my thoughts and prayers are with Micki & his family. Rest in peace, Mort.”

Before coming to ESPN, Mortensen wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (1983-1990), covering the Falcons, the Braves and the NFL, and he won the George Polk Award in 1987 for his reporting. He also was one of the first writers hired by editor Frank Deford at the sports daily The National, working there from 1989 to 1990 before coming to ESPN.

“I join the immeasurable number of hearts across the nation, in journalism and the sports community, as we mourn Chris Mortensen,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in a statement. “I’m grateful to have had the privilege of knowing Chris through his incredible work beginning at his days at the Atlanta Journal Constitution and like so many, being blessed by his professional excellence and personal grace through the many years that have followed. I considered Chris a personal hero of my mine and it is truly hard to imagine sports journalism without him.

“His ability to take on life’s obstacles with grit and determination was always truly inspiring and his enormous impact on so many, me included, will live on through this work and unwavering friendships. I send my deepest condolences to Chris’ family and friends, and pray they find peace in the honorable legacy and positive influence that Chris leaves behind.”

Mortensen also was a columnist for The Sporting News, a contributor to Sport magazine and a consultant with CBS Sports’ “NFL Today” (1990).

Mortensen, who began his journalism career at the South Bay (California) Daily Breeze in 1969, won the National Headliner Award for investigative reporting in all categories in 1978. He received 18 awards in journalism and was nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes in his career.

He also was the author of the book “Playing for Keeps: How One Man Stopped the Mob from Sinking its Hooks into Pro Football.”

Mortensen, a native of Torrance, California, was born Nov. 7, 1951. He attended El Camino College before serving two years in the Army.

He is survived by his wife, Micki, and son, Alex.

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