Jeannie Morris 1935-2020

Jeannie Morris (Photo: Chicago Bears)

Jeannie Morris, a celebrated journalist, bestselling author, globe-trotting adventurer, and award-winning producer and reporter, blazed a trail for women as Chicago’s first female sports broadcaster.

Morris, who turned 85 on December 2, died Monday at her Chicago condominium. For the past year she had been undergoing chemotherapy for appendiceal cancer, according to her family.

"She had an incredible career and did a lot of amazing things both in and out of journalism," said her son, Tim Morris, a former Chicago TV sports producer. "Beyond her life in TV, she traveled the world, pursued her passions and lived a lot of dreams that she probably never would have expected to."

Starting in 1967 — at a time when women were virtually nonexistent in sportscasting — Morris spent 24 years as a sports reporter, producer and host first at NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 and then at CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2.

Her pioneering TV work followed stints as a sports columnist for Chicago’s American and sports reporter for the Chicago Daily News. She began writing under the byline of “Mrs. Johnny Morris,” reflecting the status of women in journalism at the time.

Jeannie Morris (Photo: CBS)

Born Jeannie Myers in Redondo Beach, California, the former high school cheerleader met her future husband at the University of California Santa Barbara where they were students. The couple married in 1960 — two years after Johnny Morris was drafted by the Chicago Bears. After 10 years as a wide receiver, he left the team to become a sports anchor for NBC 5 and CBS 2. The Morrises divorced in 1985.

Among a string of firsts for Jeannie Morris, in 1975 she became the first woman to report live from the Super Bowl.

“They had me talk to the wives,” she recalled in a 2015 interview posted by the Bears. “That was my role — after the game the wives of the winning team. But we did the pregame show with some of the best personalities in sports back in the day — Dandy Don [Meredith] and these other fun guys. . . . It was nice to break the ice and have other women have the opportunities that they certainly earned.”

As co-host of “The Mike Ditka Show” each week with her husband on CBS 2, Morris often got the best of the Bears coach. "I remember one time when I asked him a question he didn’t like, after the show he just cornered me and he said: ‘Where do you get off asking me?'" she recalled. "'Do you know what the name of this show is? This is The Mike Ditka Show, it’s not The Jeannie Morris Show. How can you ask me questions like that?’ And I said: ‘It’s my job.’"

After leaving CBS 2, Morris produced documentaries for Kurtis Productions and Turner Broadcasting System, among others, and teamed with her daughter Holly to launch Adventure Divas, a multimedia production company that included a PBS documentary series.

Her 1971 bestseller Brian Piccolo: A Short Season about Bears running back Brian Piccolo inspired the movie “Brian’s Song.” Morris gave half the money from the book to Piccolo's widow and three daughters, and the other half to the Brian Piccolo Cancer Foundation. The book was rereleased on the 50th anniversary of Piccolo's death earlier this year.

In 1975 Morris wrote Adventures in the Blue Beast, the story of her family’s one-year camping trip in Europe and the former Soviet Union. In 2015 she wrote Behind the Smile: A Story of Carol Moseley Braun’s Historic Senate Campaign about the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

Morris was inducted in the Silver Circle of the Chicago/Midwest chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2002, and was named the first female recipient of a Ring Lardner Award in 2014. She was honored with 11 Emmy Awards for her work.

Asked what advice she would give women interested in sportscasting, Morris said: “You’ve got to do your homework. If you want to do a good job, you’ve got to know your stuff. I think a woman who really loves sports, grew up with sports, and more and more played sports, which is really great, that they should give it their all and go for it. Because it’s a combination of reporting and a lot of fun.

“My advice would be to really learn the sports you’re going to cover so that you have the respect of the players and the coaches, and know your stuff.”

For many years the Morris family lived in an 1840s farmhouse on a 15-acre spread in Palatine.

Morris is survived by two daughters, Debbie and Holly, two sons, Dan and Tim, and seven grandchildren.