It’s simply got to be gnawing at Chris Mortensen, the longtime ESPN NFL reporter, to be missing the draft this year. He announced in January that he’s got throat cancer, Stage IV, and that’s all kinds of terrible for anyone, not least for a guy who trades on having a voice. Since the draft kicked off his Twitter output has consisted of just one retweet, of Tony Romo joking about not having been drafted. Mort, one would have to surmise, may be having a hard week.
But he hasn’t been forgotten. Tom Hoffarth has a nice roundup of the tweets that people have directed at Mort this week, and an interview with Mortensen about how unsentimentally terrible is it to get the big C.
Here are Mort’s words:
You realize pretty quickly that it’s non-discriminatory. Doesn’t seem matter if you’re middle-aged, old, young, poor, rich, black, white, Hispanic, Islamic, Asian…it is indiscriminate. There’s a way-too-large community of cancer patients, inspired by survivors but equally inspired by those who fought the good fight but eventually succumbed.
There is one myth, in my opinion, I would share. The mantra of “kick cancer’s ass” may be well-intended but it’s misplaced. Based on what I have experienced and having seen and heard others, you don’t kick cancer’s butt. It kicks your rear end. You just take the punches, get back up and let it hit you again and again. ... You pray you’re standing in the end. But it’s day-to-day. One day at a time.
This is one of the rare moments where the phrase “one day at a time” coming from a sports figure seems apt to its literal meaning. Because unlike a point guard or a third baseman (who could, in most situations, replace that phrase with “there’s always tomorrow” without a loss of coherence), Mortensen and other people steeling themselves against terminal illness—every treatment, every blood test, every scan, every goodbye to a loved one that could be final—really are taking things one day at a time.
Mortensen’s observation here, so human, so frail, that we cannot “fight” cancer, any more than we could “fight” a gunshot or electrocution or getting shoved in front of a bus, is a piece of wisdom borne from mortality encroaching on him. It’s life stripped of hero myth, and coming from a man who covers the NFL for a living, it reveals a depth of character that I never would’ve discerned from hearing him parse Ballghazi. It makes me root for Chris Mortensen.
Elsewhere this week, Gatorade released this #touching #commercial starring a bald, visibly weakened Mortensen. In it, he talks not about deeper life truths. Unless you take it as a deeper truth that we will never—so long as we draw breath in the world—make it more than three commercial breaks without hearing Peyton Manning’s name.
It opens with a hashtag: #DearPeyton. Offscreen, you hear a guitarist working through just the right chords to express a breakup in which his ex got custody of the cat.
Mort’s here, reading one of the letters that premise this line of ads. (Peyton writes letters to people, which they’ve kept, and now they’re reading for Gatorade.) In another spot, along with other friends of Peyton, Mort reads parts of the letter (“keep writing”) that Manning sent him to commiserate with the cancer diagnosis. In this one, though, Mort pivots to the phone call in which Manning called to tell him he was retiring. “He asked me if I could just sit on the news, so he could have one last night as an NFL quarterback. It’s nice that he thought of me, and that he could trust me.” Fade to the word “sincerely,” then to black and the Gatorade logo.
Just, ugh. This is Gatorade’s version of playing against hero myth: Lauding Manning’s down-home tendencies now that he’s putting himself out to pasture to be a full-time pitchman. Nothing against letter-writing per se—it’s a simple way to make people feel noticed—but let’s not get too frothy crediting him for acts of basic human decency. And let’s not pretend that Gatorade isn’t quietly juxtaposing Manning’s departure with the context that Chris Mortensen may also be saying his farewells.
Mort chose to be in the commercial, and presumably is cool with how it turned out; he retweeted Peter King’s column that mentioned the Gatorade campaign, for one. Still, that doesn’t acquit Gatorade for borrowing cancer’s moral gravity to lionize Manning and his by-the-numbers retirement. Peyton Manning had a fantastic career, and now he’s through playing football, but he’s definitely not going anywhere. Chris Mortensen, by contrast, could be leaving us at some point soon. Our last image of him could be chemo-bald, talking to Gatorade about the time Peyton trusted him to sit on a story overnight. Because Peyton wanted to feel like a quarterback, you see. Because, shucks, you know, saying goodbye, as I’m sure Mortensen could’ve told him, really can be hell.