Requiem for a visionary

With all due respect to some of the original cast and crew of Fantasy Football Now, the only one who matters in this pic is the Big Man, Anthony Mormile. Marc Bryan-Brown


I answer the phone without looking at it, hitting the speaker button as I am typing away. And on the other end is that familiar laugh. No hello -- he just launches in.

"You're so blown, dude. You're crazy. Your wife is totally right about the pool noodles."

He laughs again, and now I'm laughing, too.

"Well, most people agree with you," I say. "It's running about 70/30 that I was wrong."

He laughs again -- he had a great, booming laugh that was just so infectious -- and says another familiar phrase.

"Of courrrrsssse. Of courrrrssssse I'm right. I love ya, Berry, but you're so blown, dude."

And he laughs again.

I don't need a hello or an introduction. It's my dear friend Anthony Mormile, and I'd know that voice, that laugh, anywhere. He is the VP of programming for CBSSports.com. He has not worked at ESPN for almost a year now, and we haven't formally worked together since 2010, and yet, here he still is, calling to give me feedback on my column in a way that only "The Big Man" can.

He did that all time, by the way. Would call, text or DM me after almost every column, or if he saw something on TV that he particularly liked. Or didn't. It didn't matter that we worked for competing companies now. He still cared. Because you see, that's the thing about Mormile. He always cared. About me. About everyone. When he died last week at the way-too-early age of 50, people of all ages, from many different media companies, with many different careers, went to Twitter, Facebook and more to all say the same thing:

"When no one else did, Anthony Mormile believed in me."

He gave me a chance. He supported me, he advised me, he fought for me, he was there for me. Whenever and however I needed it. He cared. So significant was the social media outpouring for Anthony that SI.com noticed. It asked me to share some thoughts about him -- rare for a competing sports website to ask for words about an executive who never worked for it, but such was Anthony's influence. I jumped at the chance. It was the least I could do. Among the things I wrote was that "people hearing his nickname -- Big Man -- would assume he was called that because of his size. But for those of us lucky enough to know Anthony Mormile, we know the nickname described his personality. It described his stature as a father, as a husband, as a boss, as a friend, as a human. It described his heart."

I talked about his career achievements, which were many. "As an executive in the sports digital media space, his accomplishments are significant. He launched ESPN's televised coverage of UFC and other mixed martial arts leagues with MMA Live. But he is best known for what he did in mobile. As ESPN chief technology officer Aaron LaBerge said, 'There was no one more influential in the history of ESPN in recognizing the power of mobile as a platform to serve fans.' I'd say, along with the late, great John Zehr, Anthony is the godfather of ESPN's mobile content experience, including setting up our digital video and alerts platforms. The next time you get an alert via the ESPN app with news or a highlight about your favorite team, smile and think of the Big Man, because that started with him."

But I think, if he were with us today and reading this, first he'd say something like "Really Berry? You're writing about me? You're so blown. Write about something interesting. I'm sleeping here." (Or, at least, he'd say a version of that that I couldn't print). He was quick to deflect praise or the spotlight, wanting it to shine on anyone but him. He was self-deprecating to the core. But if I could have gotten him to stop joking for a minute and get him to read something about himself and his accomplishments, I'd bet every dollar I had that the thing he'd be most proud of is how many of "his guys" (and that includes many women) had "made it." Ant mentored and gave hundreds of people their start, beginning at SportsTicker, then at ESPN and finally at CBS Sports. People you watch on TV every day, on many different networks, such as Molly Qerim, Paul Severino, Jon Anik, Jenny Dell, Stephania Bell, Jenn Brown and Cassidy Hubbarth, along with countless others: writers, producers, directors, executives. Just search for his name on Twitter and see who shared their grief at his passing; it's a who's who of media, representing companies of all shapes and sizes. Because he cared.

Nate Ravitz, a mutual friend of Anthony and mine, tweeted this, and I couldn't agree more.

Everyone from senior vice presidents to interns came to the Big Man for help and advice, and he gave it to them all, at all hours, whether he worked with them or not. Whether he competed with them or not. Because he cared.

As for me, we started working together right when I came to ESPN. I had been brought in as senior director of fantasy sports. Yes, I was management there for a minute, if you can believe it. My mandate was to grow our fantasy business. Obviously, the people who hired me believed in the power of fantasy, but after that, there was some debate as to how much coverage we should give this yet-unproven fad beyond columns for the fantasy section of ESPN.com.

As I made the rounds to the various stakeholders at ESPN, introducing myself, I soon came across the Big Man, who instantly got fantasy (he was a player), instantly got what it could do for ESPN, instantly got me.

First came digital videos, a couple each day, starring a bunch of people who had never been in front of a camera before, including me. He didn't care. "R-E-L-A-X. We'll figure it out." It started in baseball season, and as the videos were successful, soon came the idea to do a fantasy football show.

ESPN had launched Mobile ESPN at that point (our version of a cellphone), and among other things, Anthony was running content on it. So he decided to do an hourlong fantasy football show on Sunday mornings ... for the phone. Something that had never been done before and, in the era before smartphones, a pretty far-fetched idea. He called me into his office, told me what he wanted to do and asked if was I on board. Of course I was.

A few days before the first episode, it was decided that if we were gonna produce it for the phone, we might as well also put it on ESPN.com as well. The show would go on to help launch the careers of Bell, Qerim and myself, among others. It won a Sports Emmy for Outstanding New Approach, and it eventually moved from digital to TV, expanding to two hours and becoming the highest-rated non-live-event programming on ESPN2 in the fall. He proved fantasy information not only belonged on both digital and linear television, but that it would thrive there, and he showed the right way to present it as well. Without him, I have no idea whether I would still be on TV. I was rough in those early years, but Anthony stuck with me, gave me feedback and fought for me as a talent. Because he cared.

In those first years, we had no budget for extra staff, so if you sent in an advice email to the show ... you were getting an answer from Anthony himself, who came in every Sunday morning to do just that. Answer advice emails. From fans. On the weekend. What VP of a major media company does that? Anthony Mormile did that. Because he cared.

Fantasy has become big business for ESPN and for many other media companies now, and Anthony's early support is a major reason why. And it all started in his office.

That office. I described his office as always open. And I mean always open. He never closed his door. Going in there was like going to your favorite restaurant. At any given time there would be anywhere from two to 10 people in there, from all different areas of the company, and the Big Man held court. Everyone was welcome. Ideas, issues and life were discussed, considered and figured out, all the while as laughter emanated from that office. Always laughter. Anthony was one of the funniest people I've ever met. When you were in that office, you felt like family, and that wasn't by accident. Anthony was all about family. He and his wife, Jess, were married for 26 years, and technically, I guess, they have just one son, Michael. But I don't know anyone who would agree to that number. There are countless men and women at ESPN who consider him a second father. Or a big brother.

Watching wrestling or games at his house, pool parties and his famous all-day holiday party ... if you knew Anthony, you weren't just welcomed into his office. You were welcomed into his life with open arms. And not just you, but your entire family. Ant was never happier than when he was around kids and family. I knew him a little over 10 years, and I never had a conversation with him in which he didn't ask about my wife, my kids, my family. Really ask, you know? Not some "Hey, your family is good, right?" No, he would ask about each individually, ask follow-ups, remember a story you told him two months ago and ask for an update. He ended every conversation with me the same way, the same way he ended conversations with everyone. "Hey, you ever need anything, anything at all, you let me know, OK? I'm serious." I knew he was. There was nothing you could ask Ant that he wouldn't try to do for you. Because he cared.

When Anthony's mentor and dear friend John Zehr died (also beloved by all of us), Anthony immediately set about starting up "The Big Z" classic, a golf tournament and auction dedicated to the memory of his friend. And soon that office was filled with footballs and tickets and all sorts of memorabilia, as Anthony called in all his favors, wanting to raise money for his friend's family. He ran it for many years. Because he cared.

In fact, the only thing in this world Anthony didn't care about ... was himself. He didn't care if he was taking an unpopular position within the company or that it might hurt his career politically. He fought for ideals and he fought for people. He fought with those above him to protect those below him, but never told you about it. "R-E-L-A-X," he'd say when you asked him about potential conflict. "I'll handle it. Just do what you gotta do, let me worry about that."

Many times over the years I would hear how the meeting wanted to go one way, but Anthony was holding firm for the other way, fighting for the person or project that was on the table, a one-man island, and not caring how it looked. Going through all my old texts and DMs from him this past weekend, I was struck by one that he had sent me after it was announced that I would be joining Sunday NFL Countdown last year. I was nervous about my role and whether I was ready for such a big stage. And after a few jokes that I can't print here, he got serious for a second. "Be happy. Life is short and you have it all. I couldn't be happier for you, Beth and the kids."

I know, Big Man. Believe me, I know.

I am absolutely devastated by his loss. I loved that man, and his effect on my life and career is immeasurable.