John ‘Moon’ Mullin, former Chicago Tribune reporter who for decades covered the Bears, dies at 74

During his final weeks, as a stream of family members, friends and former sports media colleagues came to his bedside at Lake Forest Hospital, John “Moon” Mullin remained full of resilience, positivity and gratitude. One after another, each visitor left inspired by Mullin’s strength and impressed with his grace.

From the day he was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer in 2019, Mullin set his mind on fighting his battle with a positive attitude, beginning a push to squeeze the most from whatever time he had left. He was still intensely engaged in that quest until the end.

“He remained unfailingly positive,” said Dan Pompei, a former Chicago Tribune sportswriter and currently a writer for The Athletic. “From the very start, his head was in the right place in terms of his priorities and his approach to a life-threatening illness. He recognized this as a period of growth for him. … And he somehow found his way to a better place.”

Mullin, a longtime Chicago sports reporter, died Sunday at age 74, according to Pompei.

A graduate of Notre Dame High School in Niles and the University of Dayton, Mullin was a well-known and respected figure in the Chicago sports media landscape for decades with his most prominent contributions coming on the Chicago Bears beat. He covered the team from the final stretch of the Mike Ditka era into the early stages of Matt Nagy’s tenure as coach.

Mullin began his sports reporting career at the Daily Herald in the early 1990s, later spent more than 11 years at the Tribune and eventually became the Bears insider for Comcast Sports Net Chicago in 2009. (CSN Chicago later became NBC Sports Net Chicago.)

Former Tribune sports writer Melissa Isaacson, a longtime friend of Mullin’s, was among the horde of visitors who streamed through Lake Forest Hospital in recent weeks. True to form, Isaacson said, Mullin continued overpowering any potential anxiety or bitterness with natural doses of perspective and gratitude.

“I’ve seen the many stages this illness has taken on Moon,” Isaacson said. “But without a doubt, the one constant has been the amazing, indomitable spirit he has shown. It was impressive to experience that up close. And it was not a surprise to me that he would take this opportunity to make the best of things and to view it as an experience he was going through — as a journalist almost.

“This was his opportunity to explore all these different feelings and all these relationships and all these little moments of his journey.”

Mullin was an avid cyclist, loved good wine and enjoyed taking trips with his family. He was also big into music, at one time a guitarist and backup vocalist in a band called Jobreen.

Mullin was told at the outset of his battle with cancer that he would be lucky to survive a year. Instead, he lived for nearly three more, tapping into that deep reserve of enthusiasm, gratitude and grit to live well beyond what doctors believed his initial prognosis would allow.

During one of his final hospital visits with Mullin, Pompei found himself feeling encouraged and energized amid the most sobering of circumstances.

“He talked so much about gratitude and blessings and what a great life he had had,” Pompei said. “He was heartfelt in expressing his thanks for my friendship and for all the people who were coming to see him. … You sat there so sad because of all that was happening to him. But you walked away uplifted because he had found his way to such a good place emotionally and spiritually.”

‘We had a lot of fun’

Fred Mitchell, who competed against Mullin on the Bears beat before the two later became teammates at the Tribune, appreciated Mullin’s friendship and collegial approach.

“As competitive as we all were to break stories and beat the other guy with a scoop, Moon always had that friendly nature and always contributed to that lighthearted atmosphere in the press box and at the old Halas Hall,” Mitchell said. “We kidded each other a lot. We had a lot of fun.

“To be able to balance that competitive spirit with that light energy and all the back-and-forth teasing was fantastic. There’s a lot of pressure on that beat to be on top of every story. But Moon always had a way of keeping it in the right perspective.”

Isaacson moved from the Bulls beat to the Bears beat in 1996 and admitted she initially was intimidated by Mullin’s presence, football knowledge and extensive network of sources. Mullin’s dogged reporting skills and fierce competitive streak only added to the aura.

“For self-preservation reasons,” Isaacson said, “I wanted him so badly to be hired by the Tribune.”

In 1997, she got that wish, and the two quickly became unified teammates, building a friendship that lasted for more than a quarter century. Isaacson quickly grew to admire how Mullin naturally built strong relationships with players, coaches and front-office executives. She saw how some of the most meticulous aspects of the grind were a labor of love for him.

As a former offensive lineman himself, Mullin gravitated to players in that position group and accepted the ribbing his colleagues and competitors gave him for doing so.

“It was truly a joy and an education every day with him,” Isaacson said. “He had incredible people skills that made him a better reporter. And I think I picked some of those up simply through osmosis.”

Current WSCR-AM 670 host and former Tribune sportswriter David Haugh, meanwhile, was 34 years old when he came to Chicago to become the Tribune’s new Bears beat writer in 2003. That meant replacing Mullin, who had been shifted to cover Northern Illinois University and other college sports. Haugh recalled the intense pressure he felt joining such a high-profile NFL beat for one of the country’s biggest and most prestigious newspapers in an intensely competitive market.

Ironically, Haugh said, it was Mullin who became one of his most influential supporters and life rafts.

“For a number of different reasons, I was walking the tightrope without a net,” Haugh said. “My competitors didn’t like me. I had no experience as a beat writer and no experience in a major market. And Moon Mullin was the best mentor I had. The guy whose job went to me was the guy whose advice I sought. And Moon was the guy who graciously took me under his wing and said, ‘OK. This is when you go to Halas Hall. These are the people you need to talk to. This is the phone number for the general manager. Oh, let me introduce you to the owner.’

“He had no obligation to do any of that. But he became my lifeline for the first year on the beat. And without him, I might have had a nervous breakdown.”

Those who shared beat territory with Mullin always noted the easygoing demeanor he brought to his work, his “gentle spirit” Pompei called it.

“He was just being himself,” Pompei said. “He wasn’t one of these guys who was in the locker room trying to maneuver as a real smooth operator. He just talked to people naturally and earned their trust because of who he was. He wasn’t pumping guys for information. He just had a way that broke down barriers and earned trust.”

‘How did you find me here?’

Mitchell still laughs at one of his favorite inside jokes with Mullin, which came after United Airlines had mistakenly sent Mullin a premier executive membership card for which he had not qualified. Mitchell and Pompei, who were established and legitimate premier executive travelers, playfully chided Mullin for flaunting and attempting to utilize his phony status. During a playoff trip to Minneapolis at the end of the 1994 Bears season, Mitchell prank-called Mullin’s hotel room on New Year’s morning, altering his voice and grilling Mullin on his United status.

Said Mitchell: “He answered and I said (with an accent), ‘This is United Airlines calling. We understand you have been caught using an unauthorized premier executive card. This is an urgent matter. Our legal department will be in touch soon to get this rectified immediately.’”

After a short pause, a startled and unsuspecting Mullin responded.

“He says, ‘It’s 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning. How did you find me here?’” Mitchell remembered.

Rattled, Mullin recounted that story in the press box later that day to Mitchell, Pompei and others, none of whom let their buddy in on the joke. As a matter of fact, Mitchell said, it was more than a year before anyone let Mullin know Mitchell had made that call.

“For years after that,” Mitchell said, “every time Moon and I ran into each other somewhere, the running joke was, ‘How did you find me here?’ That just showed the camaraderie we had. He took that in stride. But he had that coming to him.”

Pompei laughs at all those memories that built up over the years. He appreciated Mullin’s versatility.

Many years back, Pompei took his wife and children to see Mullin play with his band at a local bar. Mullin invited the kids on stage to play the maracas. Pompei said it’s a memory the family still talks about.

“He could connect so easily with NFL executives, with NFL players just as he could connect so easily with kids or anybody,” Pompei said. “… Moon lived a full life. He lived a bunch of lives really. What a cool thing. He got his money’s worth out of 74 years.”

Keeping a positive outlook

For Mullin’s family and closest friends, there will always be a gratitude for how long and how well he fought his Stage IV cancer, rallying at every turn and earning extra time to soak everything in.

In January, Mullin carved out time to visit his sister in Naples, Fla. Earlier this spring, he managed another trip with his wife to visit family in Hilton Head, S.C.

Mullin also showed a heartfelt intent to pay forward the lessons he was learning from his cancer fight. Last winter, he began a YouTube series — “Attitude Over Cancer” — hoping to encourage others with cancer to fight with a positive attitude. During a video posted in February, he celebrated something as simple as a 20-minute ride on the new e-bike he bought for himself.

“I’m so jacked that I left the bike on the back of the car,” Mullin said. “Because I want to go out again tomorrow. I can’t wait. Which brings me to some of the themes of this — making plans, looking forward to things. That’s just a part of (having) a positive attitude. I only went for 20 minutes, making sure I knew how the bike worked and so forth. But I was a lot out of breath. I needed oxygen to help with the Stage IV pancreatic cancer that has metastasized into my lungs. So I need a little extra air help. But the point of the ride was the ride — just to do what I can.”

Initially, Mullin admitted, he was flustered that his days riding at higher speeds and for longer distances were long gone. But he said he gained an acceptance of his condition and an appreciation that he could still ride at all.

“Too often,” Mullin said, “we probably don’t do an activity because, well, we won’t be as good as we remembered or we think we were. … But you’re not measuring yourself against what you were 20 years ago or before cancer. So just getting out today meant everything to me.”

Mullin hoped that somewhere, for somebody, his experiences and advice would resonate.

In May, as his tumors grew and cancer attacked his liver and lungs, Mullin continued persevering. Even as his body weakened and deteriorated, his spirit never did.

In the final weeks, as nurses encouraged Mullin — for his own well-being — to put up a stop sign or at least a yellow light for the constant groups of visitors who were wanting to spend extra time with him, Mullin welcomed the company and the camaraderie.

“He said out loud, ‘This is the greatest period of my life,’ ” Isaacson said. “And he truly meant it. That sounds odd. But we knew what he was saying. It was incredible for him to have that experience, to have that time with his friends, to have that chance to tell them how much they meant to him and for them to do the same. Moon was always this student of life. And I think, in this phase, he found so much of it educational and interesting.

“I know he had deeply sad moments and sick moments. I know that. At the same time, he chose to really, really look at this as a life experience that he could find value in.”

One after another, visitors came to Mullin’s hospital room in recent weeks to tell stories, laugh, cry and say goodbye. One after another, they left enlivened.

Said Mitchell: “It was incredibly admirable how he went about dealing with his illness. He always understood his diagnosis and prognosis and realized he had been able to enjoy a wonderful life, a wonderful career and some amazing opportunities. It’s one thing for all of us to talk about how we might handle the eventuality of death. But it’s quite different to experience it firsthand, to understand that it’s imminent and to be able to deal with that with the grace and class that he did. It’s remarkable to me. And it should be a blueprint for all of us that when that day comes on how we should handle the inevitable and the grace we should lend to what we don’t have control over. I’ll forever have respect for the way he handled his circumstance.”

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