State of the Hogs: Mort
Sitting in the press box at Arkansas games with Chris Mortensen the last five years has taught all of the locals about being a journalist. Mainly, we don't have enough sources.
Our phones don't ring nearly as much as Mort's. It was hard to miss his phone vibrating away from his laptop throughout the game last week in Williams-Brice Stadium. He chuckled about the Bill Cowher to Tennessee rumors flowing from his phone and even more when Jon Gruden's name was linked to Knoxville.
As most know, Mortensen is ESPN's man in the know when it comes to the National Football League. His son Alex is a senior with the Razorbacks and that means Mort doesn't missed many UA games.
It probably surprised some when Mortensen and wife Micky picked up from their home in Atlanta to relocate in Bella Vista when Alex enrolled at Arkansas. It shouldn't have. Mort consistently makes career choices based on family.
For instance, he gave up his job as the Atlanta Journal Constitution's beat writer for the Atlanta Braves because it took him away from Alex and Micki too much. His contracts with ESPN promise he can live anywhere. His home in Bella Vista includes a radio studio and a TV camera (that doesn't currently work).
Some of my most enjoyable afternoons over the past few years have been Razorback practices when Mort plopped down in the next bleacher seat. He's like any other Hog fan from Eudora to Mountain Home. He wants to know what he'd missed the previous day -- except he can tell you about every ex-Razorback in the NFL and all their coaches.
I'd asked for a chance to pick his mind about our profession and his start a few weeks ago with a promise from both that we'd finally do it open date week. I didn't bring many questions to our two-hour lunch. Didn't need them. He had the questions and the answers, as usual.
The best concerned his advice to a Alabama J-school grad who thought he was ready for a beat job either in the NFL or an SEC team.
"He had just gotten a job offer from the AJC to cover preps," Mortensen said. "He came in to my office with this long face to tell me that he was going to turn it down. He didn't think it was good enough. I told him to march right back in there and take the job."
That's how he started, covering 32 prep teams in the Los Angeles Area for the South Bay Daily Breeze.
"The foundation for everything I know about building relationships comes from those days," he said. "It's a great way to start. No one hands you quotes. No one gives you a stat sheet. You trudge the sidelines doing all that for yourself. There is something to be said for working your way to the top."
I've had J-school students ask for career advice. The first thing I do is talk them into a different direction. I explain the low wages in the newspaper business.
"That's right," Mort said. "My first job with the Daily Breeze paid $85 a week. I thought that was great. I was doing cart wheels."
It wasn't about the money, not altogether.
"No, I was an addict for the newspaper right away," he said. "I can remember the adrenaline rush I got the first I time I saw my by-line. I always got that. I got it when I wrote for the AJC. I can remember looking at my name for an hour one time. Then came the realization they were going to pay me, too.
"If you have the passion, the money won't matter. I can tell you I'm still an addict for the deadlines, the hunt for the story. I thrive to compete on a clock."
But he took that first job becaues he was going to junior college and needed money.
"I thought I was going to be a teacher and a coach," he said. "I'd played all three sports -- football, basketball and baseball. I loved the games. I just figured I could get a job to pay for school and I'd still end up being a coach.
"I can't stress enough that one reason I have generally related well to coaches and athletes is rooted in my original career goal to be a coach. Like a lot of people, my greatest influences probably were my coaches."
Passion is a must no matter the career choice, he said.
"I firmly believe that in any career path, there is going to be disillusionment, discouragement, frustration and if you don't have a passion for that job, then you're going to be one unhappy person," he said.
"I also believe that every day is a chance to compete and prove yourself.
That's true in a lot of jobs but you can't be afraid to compete, afraid to fail or afraid to succeed."
He went from covering preps to the paper's beat writer for the LA Dodgers and that stint included baseball's strike years. He became a thorn in the side of the LA Times when he broke three of the five major national stories during ia 50-day period.
"The common statement those days: What is the Daily Breeze, where is that?" Mortensen recalls with pride.
Mortensen was there when Tommy Lasorda got his start as the Dodger skipper.
"I was bold, edgy and rude," Mortensen said. "Lasorda had gotten on me for second guessing him. I remember we got on an elevator at the start of a season at the hotel, just me and him. I told him, ‘I think my high school baseball coach is better than you.' He laughed. I think he thought I was kidding. I repeated it and he got mad. I'm not too proud of that."
The brashness was there from the start.
"For my high school paper, I once wrote a column ripping the coach for being unimaginative," Mortensen said. "I predicted his script. First down run, second down run, third down pass, fourth down punt. The players on the team loved it, but the coach wasn't too happy.
"I've always been brash. I got in fights a lot when I was young. I was the black sheep in my family, a rebel. I think I had anger management issues, just very competitive. I always wrote with an edge. The trick I learned was to do that and still maintain the relationships."
The LA Times got tired of losing the fights. "The Times had gotten big into feature writers," Mortensen said. "The sports editor there, Bill Dwyer, told me I was a great reporter, but not a good enough writer. He wouldn't hire me but he wanted to get me out of their hair."
Dwyer pushed Mortensen to AJC sports editor Van McKenzie when the Braves beat writer came open. That's where he met Micki.
"She had a PR job for the Braves and worked the press box," Mortensen said. "She thought I was the most arrogant person she ever met. We dated for about a year before we got married."
Alex is their only child. When he was 9, Mort decided he was gone on the baseball circuit too much. He switched to the Atlanta Falcons beat job with much less travel. There was a brief fling with Frank Deford's daily sports newspaper The National, then his ESPN gig, now going on 18 years. He's got three years left on his ESPN contract.
"The irony is I despised those with TV," he said. "I didn't think it was journalism. I'm a hypocrite. I've gone from writing 1,500-word stories to 30-second TV spots. I'm a headline writer."
Perhaps, but the activity of his cell phone suggests he's a busy headline writer. And, the headlines are always correct.
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