'He was one of our best': Former Bears beat writer John "Moon" Mullin dies at 74
The first time I encountered John Mullin, I knew I was in trouble. He was the Bears' beat writer for the Daily Herald, a presence not to be ignored, and I was the new fresh-off-maternity-leave Bears writer for the Tribune. He was good, I was not. He had sources and relationships and a deep reservoir of football knowledge. I did not.
He appeared to be both everyone's friend and greatest fear. And I was rightfully worried.
While the other beat writers may have had sources in the front office and among the players and coaches, Moon was tight with the strength and conditioning coaches, the equipment manager. His relationships were professional but deep and they went all the way through the front office. But more than that, Moon and the depth chart were one.
Bears writers would tease him for his bond with the third-string offensive guard, reasoning they understood each other because Moon himself was an offensive lineman in college. But it was more than that and we all knew it. And he delighted in his revenge when the fierce defensive lineman Bryan Robinson moved quickly up the depth chart and became a standout in 1998, only to refuse to speak to all the jerks who didn't care enough to interview him before he was a starter. All but Moon, of course, who did more than interview B-Rob when he was a third-stringer but got to know him on a personal level as he did with virtually everyone. B-Rob loved Moon. More than that, he respected him.
John Mullin, who left us on Father's Day at 74 years old after a valiant battle with cancer, was hired by the Daily Herald as a business writer in 1989 and had a life that could and should have been the subject of a fifth book. As a young man, he jumped freight trains -- "but only once," laughs his sister Ann. He worked in the steel mills in Dayton. He was a tennis pro, once playing against -- and losing to -- an 11-year-old Andrea Jaeger, the wager a dozen chocolate-chip cookies, which he sent to her at Wimbledon. He was an insurance claims adjuster and an arson investigator. He worked in marketing and PR for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He majored in history and minored in psychology, and had a Master's in Education.
It was not the usual route for a journalist, but it gave him a perspective that few others had, the perfect background for someone always looking for context.
When Moon moved over to the Tribune in 1997, I was, of course, thrilled that my opponent was now a teammate. We shared bylines and we shared laughs and his generosity was boundless, not just with his reporting, as one would expect, but with the genuine support and unselfishness and us-against-the-world spirit that instantly made me tougher. Better.
He wanted to get the story first as much as the next reporter, probably more than the next reporter, but he was a man of principle and integrity first. It cost him at times; the slight hesitation to print something he knew but wanted to double-check or hold -- because it wasn't worth damaging a relationship -- may have meant someone else got the story first. But he was OK with the consequences. And it would, more often than not, result in him getting another, bigger story down the line, tipped by a player, coach or front-office employee who knew they could trust Moon to get it right and wanted to pay him pay back for his earlier discretion.
That doesn't often win people promotions in our business. But it does win them respect among those who knew Moon and can look back today at a body of work and say he was one of our best.
For his contemporaries, though, today is not one in which we will talk about his work but rather a man who, we are learning, had deep friendships with so many of us; relationships held together with kind texts and encouraging words, a practical joke that he took as well as he gave, as Dan Pompei and Fred Mitchell could tell you, and a glass of wine or two. Or three. He knew his wine, to which Peggy Kusinski, his partner in crime on many a Bears' road trip, would attest.
For all of us, Moon represented something different and yet something so very much the same. A pal, a trusted confidant, a dear friend, as he was to me.
For years -- and years -- we met for breakfast -- Egg Harbor in Lake Forest and Glenview, Eggshell Cafe in Deerfield, Rise n Dine in Wheeling and, for the last several years, Butterfield's in Northbrook. We knew who had the best jam (Eggshell's raspberry, no contest) and where they kept the Country Crock at Butterfield's (in a special drawer in the kitchen where we often had to guide the newbie waitresses).
Moon always got the Meat Lover's omelet, which, as the name promises, had a lot of meat. On it, he emptied approximately half a bottle of ketchup and ate with relish. And he always let me have a bite of his pancakes.
It was there where we laughed until we cried. I often came straight from the "Y," for a while from a boxing class. For years after I stopped taking the class, Moon would still invariably greet me with, "So, who did you punch today?"
We were angry for a while, both of us swept up in the same Tribune layoff of '09, and it felt like a betrayal as much as heartbreak. Thankfully, we both latched on quickly to other things, Moon with Comcast Sports, finding a job and a following who appreciated he was more than just a skilled reporter but a personality who engaged both viewers and his new co-workers, often the ex-players who loved him when they were Bears.
And so the breakfasts gradually became less bitter but now wonderful catch-up sessions, with us talking excitedly about these news jobs and something else: college teaching gigs that energized us as much as anything had. Moon already had been teaching at Lewis College and over the years I had visited his classes, even taught with him at DePaul. Soon, inspired by him, I joined the faculty at Northwestern.
We talked about our students and our classes more than we had ever talked about the Bears, exchanging stories and lesson plans and philosophies, and soon Moon would pause and smile as he so often did, and say, "Living well is the best revenge, isn't it?"
He would point to his nose and then to you with the other hand when you made a good point, like it was a game of Charades. I loved that. And he quoted Winston Churchill like I would quote what happened on "The Bachelor."
"Like Churchill said of Anthony Eden," Moon told me once when we were talking about one blowhard or another, "He is a modest man with much to be modest about.'"
Of course, I had to look up who Anthony Eden was, the prime minister of the United Kingdom in the mid-'50s. But of course. Moon could say that without the slightest pretense. A Renaissance man in sweatpants.
He was an adoring father to his daughter Jenny. He played piano by ear, sang and played guitar in a band in his 50s. He took up cycling in middle age and insisted on wearing the full biking regalia, again delighting in the teasing that invariably followed when he'd ride to Bears practice and walk into the press room still in the Spandex shorts.
I didn't know it would be our last breakfast a few weeks ago, thin as he had gotten, mostly because he had recently purchased an expensive e-bike, recently played golf, still spoke like a man excited about his prospects and all that life had to offer, especially the love of his life, his wife Carolyn.
She generously shared Moon with his legions of friends, even in his final days when he broke the Lake Forest Hospital record for most visitors. The hospital, where Moon passed Sunday, actually told his family of that stat, though I can picture Moon verifying.
I can picture a lot of things, all good, all smiles, though I think it will be a very long time before I will be able to walk into Butterfield's again without my friend. But when I do, I will order the Meat Lover's omelet, pour half a bottle of ketchup on top and laugh until I cry.
• Melissa Isaacson is an assistant professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. She covered the Bears with John Mullin for the Chicago Tribune from 1996 through 2006.