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Viewpoint Berman on deck for cancer benefit

August 29, 2018

He has been involved with the V Foundation for years. Chris Berman’s work in the battle against cancer certainly is nothing new.

And he has appeared before with his longtime friend George Bodenheimer, the former president of ESPN. As recently as the day before the ESPYs in July, in fact, they both spoke at the ESPY Celebrity Golf Classic.

“But we’ve never done anything like this,” Berman said. “I mean, it’s not like George and I are on some kind of tour.

“It’ll be two days before ESPN’s 39th birthday and as stupid as it sounds, I’d like to be in the audience as well as being on stage for this one. Good night. Great cause.”

The night is Sept. 5 in Old Saybrook. The cause is the Connecticut Cancer Foundation.

Since 1988, CFF has given nearly $6 million in grants to 6,000 state cancer patients and more $2 million to cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. This the result of a promise made good by former Yankee John Ellis. He’d already lost a sister, brother and sister-in-law to cancer before they were 40. He was only 38 and lying in a hospital bed in 1986 with Hodgkin’s disease when he said to a higher power, “If you let me live, I will help every person I can, every needy family.”

Ellis lived. He made good. It’s the kind of Connecticut story a Connecticut guy like Berman loves. The Foundation’s annual celebrity dinner and memorabilia auction now held annually at Mohegan Sun has brought the greatest Yankees — from Mickey to Yogi to Whitey to Jeter — to Connecticut over three decades.

“I’ve known about the dinner, but I’d never been involved,” Berman said. “About four months ago, Jay Rothman, the producer for ‘Monday Night Football’ — he and I did baseball, too — said, ‘Hey, I got an idea. You and George in an intimate setting for a big fundraiser.’ Before I knew it, George was on a group text going, ‘I’m in.’ Jay’s an old friend. This is one of the easiest yeses I’ve ever had.”

So the Swami and the Prez, two men at the root of the most ambitious sports media enterprise in history, will sit together Sept. 5 at the CT Cancer Foundation Operations Center in Old Saybrook. They’ll talk. And they’ll talk some more. It promises to be a fascinating evening. Seating is limited to 75 people at $250 a ticket, refreshments will be served, and the event is scheduled from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Billed as the Kickoff Against Cancer, sure, there will be some analysis of NFL teams and players. The Swami will make some predictions. Berman, arguably the most famous personality in the history of ESPN, is never caught speechless. Never.

“We’ll talk about it before we go up there, but we have no big plan,” Berman said. “Often the questions, especially at a more intimate gathering, are way better than what we might have prepared for. Look, between George and I we’ve seen it all at ESPN.

“Bob Ley, some others, too, but George fills a lot of blanks I don’t. And I might fill blanks he doesn’t know about. There’s not going to be much left out. We’ll answer any question.”

Berman, 63, said he may have met Ellis, nicknamed the “New London Strong Boy” in his prime, 10 or 15 years ago.

“But I don’t know John,” said Berman, who graduated from Brown in 1977. “I know he had a 13-year major league career and that ranks right up there in the history of Connecticut athletes. And I know how much respect there must be for him to have attracted all those great players over the years for the Foundation.”

Berman also knows Ellis was a football and baseball star at New London High.

“It’s funny, I began my career in Westerly, R.I, (at WERI) for a year,” Berman said. “On Thanksgiving, I covered the Fitch-New London football game. Not announcing it. Every 10 minutes with a roll of dimes, I went to the payphone and called in updates.”

We didn’t have a roll of dimes, but we did get an update on discussions between ESPN and Berman for a return to a larger role this fall.

“We’re looking for ways for me to help during the football season by coming in on selected Sundays and helping out on ‘SportsCenter’ with highlights and other things,” Berman said.

There has been some high-profile movement in Bristol in recent days. Jemele Hill accepted a buyout. Michelle Beadle has been reassigned from the struggling “Get Up!” With ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, who replaced John Skipper six months ago, and executive vice president Norby Williams interested in a more traditional “SportsCenter,” Berman is obviously a good fit there on Sunday nights.

After the ill-fated discussion-based “The Six” with Hill and Michael Smith was replaced at 6 p.m., “SportsCenter” ratings have gone up. When Berman left “Sunday NFL Countdown” last year, ratings dropped 12 percent. He never retired. In the semi-retirement overseen by Skipper, his role was reduced to hosting “NFL Primetime” following the Super Bowl and conference championships, features for “Monday Night Football” and interviews and features for “Sunday NFL Countdown.” He continues on play-by-play of MLB divisional playoffs on ESPN Radio.

The truth is we could use some more Boomer Berman these days.

“I like Chris and we are talking,” Pitaro told the New York Post, which first reported about Berman’s potential return. “We are going to see what we can do.”

This likely will involve a handful of Sundays in 2018. Berman said he will take a trip to France for the Ryder Cup among a number of weekend plans he already he has made. This much is sure: He’s heading to Pittsburgh to interview Ben Roethlisberger for the opening week of “NFL Countdown.”

From there? You can ask him about it on Sept. 5.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

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