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Berman's Loss This Week Far Outweighs His Gain

August 16, 1996|LARRY STEWART

This was supposed to be a big week for Chris Berman. On Thursday, ABC was to announce that, in addition to his ESPN duties, Berman would also be the new halftime host on "Monday Night Football," replacing Brent Musburger.

The plan was to put Berman on a conference call with reporters, where he could answer questions about what this move would mean to his career, which already includes four awards as sportscaster of the year.

All that got put on hold, however. The announcement will be made next week. Berman was in no mood to talk about his career one day after he had lost his close friend and longtime ESPN colleague Tom Mees.

"Tom was like a brother to me," Berman said shortly after arriving at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., Thursday afternoon. He had just returned from visiting Mees' wife, Michelle.

"I don't get it. I don't know what happened," he said, struggling to remain composed. "They've termed it an accidental drowning. But we don't know how he ended up in the pool."

Mees stopped by ESPN Wednesday morning to pick up his mail and chat with colleagues. He then went to his home in nearby Southington and took his daughters, Gabrielle, 4, and Lauren, 8, to his next-door neighbor's pool to swim.

He was gone no more than 10 minutes. Lauren ran home for help, and Michelle found her husband at the bottom of the pool. A lawn maintenance man, hearing Michelle's screams for help, pulled him from the pool. An ambulance, summoned by a 911 call from Michelle, arrived seconds later. But it was too late. Mees, who couldn't swim, was pronounced dead at 3:15 p.m.

"We may never know what happened," Berman said.

At first, police said Mees jumped into the pool to save Gabrielle, but authorities later said that account could not be confirmed.

Police said Thursday their investigation is closed.


Mees, 46, Berman and Bob Ley were hired by ESPN before it went on the air Sept. 7, 1979.

Mees, a 1972 Delaware graduate, had worked in Wilmington, Del., and Tallahassee, Fla.

"Doing those early 'SportsCenter' shows were the most fun I've ever had at ESPN," Berman said. "We never used a TelePrompTer. Scotty Connal [ESPN's first executive producer who died two weeks ago] wanted us to talk with the viewers, not at them. We did a lot of ad-libbing, and that was great.

"Those early shows set the tone for ESPN. It would not be the place you see now without Tom's contributions, both in front of the camera and behind it."

In recent years, Mees was a hockey announcer for ESPN2. He was most recently working Tampa Bay Buccaneer exhibition telecasts. He called last Saturday's game against the Atlanta Falcons.

"To put it in hockey terms, and I think Tom would like that, he'd play every shift if he had to," Berman said. "He was such a hard worker, but he'd be upset if he knew we were making a fuss over him today.

"I regret that I never got to tell him about the ABC job. It's a dream for any broadcaster. He would have been very proud.

"But this story is not about me. We'll talk about me some other time. This is about a huge loss of a dear friend, a friend whose spirit as well as ability will be missed."


Another one of Mees' closest friends at ESPN was former "SportsCenter" anchor Chris Myers, now the host of "Up Close."

"When I started there [in late 1990], Tom is the one who took me under his wing. He was such a genuine guy, and a good husband and father.

"I remember he had to leave early the night Gabrielle was born, and I announced the birth on the air. He later thanked me and told me he was saving the tape.

"Tom, Mike Tirico and I worked the late edition together. I called Mike [Wednesday night], and we started talking about Tom. But we couldn't continue. We both broke down."

ESPN will profile Mees during its "SportsWeekly" program Sunday at 8 a.m. Berman and Ley will anchor the segment. Also, a fund in his honor has been established to help children with cancer and blood disorders. Donations can be sent to the Valerie Fund, 1878 Springfield Ave., Mablewood, N.J. 07040.

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