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Clay Henry

CLAY HENRY: Mort celebrated in Rogers recently

Longtime legendary NFL reporter Chris Mortenson made his home in NWA and celebration of his life drew big sports names.



ESPN’s A-list crew of on-camera NFL reporters came to Arkansas to pay their respects to the Chris Mortensen family Monday.

I don’t want to call it their final respects, because none of them will ever forget Mort, their mentor and lead NFL reporter with them for most of the last three decades.

As all of them have been saying since his passing two months ago, Mort was the gold standard for the way all reporters at ESPN handled their business.

ESPN stars Adam Schefter and Chris Berman both spoke at Mort’s Celebration of Life service at Cross Church Pinnacle Hills, officiated in a most wonderful way by Ronnie Floyd, pastor emeritus.

Mort’s wife Micki and son Alex, a former Arkansas Razorback quarterback, had postponed the service after a burial in eastern Alabama until both the NFL Draft and spring football concluded.

Floyd detailed Mort’s battle with cancer and the way his Faith always carried his friend. He said he modeled Christian life in all of his matters. There was mention of the way Micki led Mort to Christ in the early days of their relationship.

The service was perfect, complete with a huge video file on Mort prepared by ESPN. There were also moving renditions of Great Is Thy Faithfulness and I Can Only Imagine from Jordan Grizzard, worship pastor at Cross Church.

Alex is offensive coordinator at Alabama-Birmingham after a long stint as a top aide for Nick Saban at Alabama.

I can tell you lots of details on both Micki and Alex because my good friend Chris kept me updated. Our conversations over the last 20 years either started or ended with their doings. He’d tell me about Micki’s horses at the farm in Tontitown, or the work Alex was doing behind the scenes for Saban.

The service was put on hold while ESPN covered the draft, completed two weeks ago. Alex was consumed with spring football and recruiting.

“It’s good to be busy,” Alex said during the visitation ahead of the service. “Spring football has been good for me.”

Later during the day’s closing remarks, Alex surprised no one when he said he still tried to call his dad daily. No father and son have ever been closer.

There was at least a little football talk with Alex. When he said UAB is “going to be good” this fall, there was the certainty that it will affect his alma mater. The Hogs play host to the Blazers in their Fayetteville opener on Sept. 14.

I watched the room during the visitation and there were football conversations everywhere. How could you not have them with that kind of group? Mort stories were shared. Most were about how he mentored. It was clear there was no one with a more active phone or a bigger contact list.

Who wouldn’t want to talk football with Archie Manning or Joe Ferguson, two long-time NFL quarterbacks? They were there, as was super agent Jimmy Sexton. The ESPN crew at the service included Peter King, Tom Jackson, Sam Ponder, Andrea Kremer, Suzy Kolber, Keyshawn Johnson, Adrian Wojnarowski and Sal Paolantonio.


Schefter’s remarks mirrored what he’d said in the hours after Mort’s death when ESPN broke into programming. He, like Paolantonio, would be forever grateful for the newspaper man who broke through with ESPN. Mort’s success led ESPN to hire more print journalists as analysts and reporters.

“Sal thinks about Mort every time he walks into his backyard and sees his swimming pool,” Schefter said. “Mort is the reason he has that pool. We all feel like we would not have gotten out of the newspaper business without Mort. He was first.”

Berman, the king of nicknames, apologized to Floyd before revealing the colorful nickname he gave to Mort. It’s not the type of stuff you hear in church. That was just after he called his fallen colleague “the conscience of our network.” In other words, Mort was never wrong with a breaking story and no one else should be, either.

Schefter said the race to be first will never slow, but Mort’s way was to always be right and all knew it at ESPN.

Berman said it was his first trip to Northwest Arkansas, but he understood quickly why Mort and Micki so loved it and decided to stay even after Alex graduated from the UofA.

“On the way to Cross Church, I passed The Blessings, Pleasant Crossing and Healing,” Berman said. “I get it.”

King didn’t speak at the service, but he did post his thoughts on X, formerly Twitter, before leaving Northwest Arkansas. His words:

“Headed home from the Chris Mortensen memorial service at his home church in Arkansas. A moving tribute to one of the greats in our business, as a pro and person. The event, the family, the support from his friends … inspiring. Words from his son, from a high school coach Mort influenced, from peers Chris Berman and Adam Schefter and Daniel Jeremiah, left those in the pews in tears, for a life generously lived.

“We should all hope to live the kind of giving life Chris Mortensen lived.”

Kenny Dallas is head coach at Trinity Christian in Sharpsburg, Ga. He said Mort was on the selection committee when he was hired to coach Alex’s team and was all aboard on his hiring despite no winning records.

“I was 27,” Dallas said. “I still don’t know what they saw in me, but I can tell you that the support I got from Chris was unbelievable.”

Like everyone else in the room of several hundred, Dallas had stories about the texts and notes he continued to receive from Mort over the decades.

Mort leaves no one behind. On a personal front, I still don’t know why an ESPN megastar picked me out from the local media to mentor. But he did and we became close friends. One of my favorite stories comes from daughter Sarah. She was the hospitality greeter at the Hawgs Illustrated baseball suite at Baum-Walker Stadium frequented by Mort. He was an avid Razorback baseball fan and big supporter of coach Dave Van Horn.

Most don’t know this, but Mort was a baseball writer at heart, perhaps the reason he picked me out years ago. It’s my passion, too.

Several years ago Mort had just gotten off a plane after covering the draft and texted me about a seat to a big series. We had one and he arrived in short order, straight from the airport.


As soon as he walked into the suite, he grabbed Sarah’s arm and asked her to sit beside him with a rail to his right. Don’t move was the order.

Soon Mort revealed what had him jumpy. There was a man in the suite he’d seen on the trip to the draft. They had boarded the plane together and unfortunately had side-by-side seats. Mort had his draft notes spread out in front of him for most of the three-hour trip. His neighbor couldn’t help but notice.

Eventually, he was staring at Mort’s face.

“You are with ESPN,” he said.

“Yes,” Mort said.

“I know you, you are Mel Kiper,” the man said. Sternly, Mort shot back, “I am NOT Mel Kiper.”

The conversation ended. But as both trudged toward baggage claim, there was one last try.

“You are Mel Kiper,” he said.

Mort said he just kept going and there would be no more conversation.

He told Sarah not to leave his side and they dove into conversation on the Arkansas baseball team. The man did not intrude again although he did ask someone in the suite if the man in the front row was ESPN recruiting guru Mel Kiper. Someone identified Mort and the man left.

I arrived in the middle innings and Sarah moved to the back of the suite. Mort quickly began to detail the facts he’d learned about my daughter’s life as a former college soccer player and Rogers school teacher.

From that day on, every conversation with Mort began, “Tell me about Sarah and what she’s doing now.” He forgets nothing or no one. That was his wonderful way of networking.

The texts and emails from Mort were rich. When I was down and thought no one read a word of my columns, there would be a text from Mort about how much he enjoyed a fishing story or an interview with a baseball coach.

I got it that he would be interested in my Razorback coverage while Alex was in school. That was personal to him. But it never stopped after Alex left.

We worked together on coaching search stories. It was clear to me that he was feeding information to the ESPN college beat reporters. But it was a two-way street. I knew he valued my sources, just as he did their sources.


I learned that Bret Bielema was on the Stephens plane with Jeff Long on the way to Wisconsin. Bielema had already signed his Arkansas contract and just wanted to tell his players before leaving Madison. The pilots had relayed that to their boss.

Warren Stephens, my boss in a way, gave me that information but not for publication, only to gather background info for the story when the UA made the release. It enabled me to begin to track down Hayden Fry for an interview about Bielema.

But I did pass along that information to Mort. He gave it to someone on the ground at Madison. They were able to confirm the hire through Wisconsin sources.

We talked a lot of ball. But we watched a lot together, too. It was more baseball in the last 10 years. But I got to know Mort best watching Arkansas football practices when Alex was a Razorback.

Mort was gone a lot during the fall, but during the week he might have a day or two to come to a UA workout. My timing was lucky one day when as I headed through the stadium to the practice field I heard two familiar voices. It was Frank Broyles and Mort.

“Watch practice with us,” Mort said. “We watch from the second floor of the south end zone, out the back window.”

And that became my regular viewing point anytime Mort was in town. I learned so much football with those two. Some of the stories were unbelievable in depth. Often they were NFL discussions, a lot on the Cowboys because Broyles loved Jerry Jones.

Our communication during his battle with throat cancer was intense. He quickly identified it properly, a life or death struggle that would eventually be lost.

All the while, Mort would text about a story I’d written. Mort didn’t care a thing about fishing, so when he relayed a detail from the next to last graph on a travel story to Montana, I knew he’d read it all.

The obvious point isn’t about Sarah or me, it is the way Mort dove into relationships. There have been stories all across social media in the past two months about the relationships Mort has maintained from strangers met in airports, hotel lobbies and outside football stadiums.

When he came to Arkansas baseball games — and he came to a lot — there were always conversations outside the stadium with fans. He talked to everyone. He asked their name and could remember them. Who can do that?

Oh, he might not ask your name if you asked if he was Mel Kiper!