In her 13 years living with pro football, Jeannie Morris has violated just about all the rules of life, business and the game. She works for her own husband, former all-pro flanker Johnny Morris. She is a sportscaster, knowledgeable, and, arguably, the star among all women in her trade, not to mention of the Morris family.
“Jeannie is a rare woman,” says Johnny admiringly, “and the real test is that she’s been accepted by other sportswriters.” She was the author of the 1971 biography Brian Piccolo: A Short Season, the affecting story of the life of the Chicago Bears’ halfback who died tragically of cancer in 1970 at the age of 26. (His teammate Gale Sayers’ account of their friendship inspired the Emmy-winning TV movie, Brian’s Song.) When her book became a bestseller, Jeannie turned all of her profits over to Piccolo’s widow, Joy, and her three daughters, who are still close friends of the Morrises.
While Johnny’s the articulate and respected sports anchorman at the CBS-owned station where they work in Chicago (he makes $110,000 to her $40,000 a year), Jeannie is his field reporter. They both do color reporting—network-wide—during the pro football season. Last year Jeannie was picked to cover the Super Bowl for NBC—the first woman so assigned—though she herself admits it was a super bomb when during her post-game show she “was almost killed by drunken, happy, crazy Pittsburgh Steeler fans.”
Of course, those Neanderthal rooters who think the Four Horsemen are Cosell, Karras, Gowdy, and Schenkel will never accept a woman in the broadcast booth. “They’ll complain to us,” mimics Johnny, “that if you never had a jock on you ain’t got no business covering sports.” And Jeannie, a petite 5’2″, still groans over the time she giddily asked 7’1″ Wilt Chamberlain for his astrological sign and he replied, “The dollar sign, baby.”
What keeps Johnny, 40, and Jeannie, 39, sane amid the pressures of commercial TV is the notion that they can always punt—and, in fact, they already have once. In 1973, while working for NBC in Chicago, Johnny decided, “I had to prove to myself I could get away from it all.” The idea was to take their four children on a year-long whirl through Europe. “Ron Santo of the Cubs told us nobody could survive a year cooped up with four kids in a camping van,” Jeannie recalls. “And the station threatened that it would be professional suicide.” But the Morrises sold two cars to buy a van, packed six sleeping bags and drove 25,000 miles from Spain to Russia. “It took courage for Johnny to say goodbye to NBC,” admires Jeannie, who last month published a book about their trip. “Now we’ve got something that nobody can ever take away from us,” Johnny reflects. “And we did it before the kids began to grow up and we lost them.”
Home for the Morrises’ brood of four children (two are by Jeannie’s first marriage, and Johnny has a 15-year-old son by his first wife living in California) is an elegant 1840’s farmhouse on a 15-acre spread in Palatine, Ill., an hour’s drive from the Loop. There they’ve converted an entrance to a half-mile tunnel under the house (dating from the pre-Civil War’s Underground Railroad) into a wine cellar and outfitted the barn with a basketball court. Since she and Johnny are at work well into the evening, and the maid comes but once a week, Jeannie spends Saturdays dicing up their own organic-grown vegetables for her frozen casseroles, which the kids then thaw during the week “so they’ll have a home-cooked meal every day.” The idea of wife working for spouse, frowned upon in many corporations, was stipulated by Johnny so that “if we have some family crisis, she can be gone a couple of days without the roof caving in.”
John and Jeannie, he says, were both “born into sports” as native Californians. Jeannie says her mom, a Santa Barbara educator, was such a minor-league baseball nut “that I’d go to sleep every night with the games on the radio.” Johnny grew up in Long Beach, and his working-class parents, a Greek dad and a Swedish mom, sent him to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he majored in economics and football. There he saw Jeannie, also a student, for the first time and remembers, “I thought she might be cute if she’d slow down, take the wiggle out of her walk and stop looking so damn serious. It was more than five years later, after we’d both done a lot of growing up”—and survived broken marriages—”that we found each other again.” Jeannie jokes that “Football players almost always marry cheerleaders,” but she scoffs at her own days with the pom-pom brigade in high school.
During Johnny’s ten years with the Bears he became one of football’s top pass receivers (despite his small size, 5’10”, 185 lbs.) and in 1964 set an NFL single-season receiving record of 93 catches. “Johnny was a clever, talented athlete,” growls their friend “Papa Bear” George Halas, the team’s curmudgeonly owner. “He even invented a few tricks of his own—and he applies those characteristics to sports-casting.” Johnny still carries painful reminders of his playing days in the form of calcium deposits on his ribs that prevent him from sleeping on his stomach.
When Johnny retired, he was offered a sports column by Chicago Today, “but I told them my wife could write it better”—which she did for $50 a column. Jeannie started collaborating on the Piccolo book after “Joy called us and said Brian was so bored in the hospital—would we think of something for him to do besides reading and watching television?” Though Joy Piccolo has since remarried, Jeannie continues to answer her mail about Brian for her. “Joy had to begin to live again,” explains Johnny. He cuddles Jeannie in his lap, then adds, “Most people think of themselves first, but Jeannie comes as close—no, she does it. Jeannie always puts others first.”
In contrast to some cover-girl types thrust unprepared into the press box, Jeannie is continuing to win the respect of athletes by her expertise and determination to fight for issues more compelling than simply locker-room access for women. “Timmy, who was 4, expressed my whole feeling when we were in there once,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Mom, let’s get outta here. This place smells like Dad’s socks.’ ” Perhaps the ultimate tribute to Jeannie came in a fan letter she likes to tease her husband about. “Dear Miss Morris,” the letter reads, “I certainly enjoy your sports newscasts, and it’s obvious to everybody that you know 100 times more about sports than your brother does…”