Jeff Dickerson, a fixture at ESPN and in the Chicago sports market for two decades, died Tuesday of complications from colon cancer. He was 43.
In a cruel twist, Dickerson died at the same hospice care facility that his wife, Caitlin, died in two years ago. Caitlin Dickerson had undergone treatment for melanoma and its complications for eight years. Jeff Dickerson is survived by their son, Parker, and his parents, George and Sandy Dickerson.
“JD was one of the most positive people you will ever meet,” ESPN deputy editor for digital NFL coverage Heather Burns said in a statement. “We all got together in October for an event, and there he was lifting our spirits and assuring us he was going to beat cancer. That’s just who he was. We are holding Jeff’s family, and especially his son, Parker, in our prayers.”
Dickerson said in 2019 that he considered Caitlin an “inspiration” because “she refused to let cancer dictate her life.” He channeled that determination upon receiving his own cancer diagnosis in early 2021, plowing ahead with a full schedule that included parenting Parker, fundraising for cancer research and covering the Chicago Bears for ESPN digital and ESPN 1000 radio. He also joined the board of the Vaughn McClure Foundation, a non-profit he helped establish to honor the memory of McClure, a former Bears beat writer and Atlanta Falcons reporter for ESPN who died in 2020.
On Oct. 14, Dickerson served as the emcee for the foundation’s inaugural charity gala in suburban Chicago. Few at the event knew that his disease was advancing.
Proud to announce the winners of the Vaughn McClure Foundation Mid-Suburban League $5,000 journalism scholarship: Prospect high school seniors Rick Lytle and Elizabeth Keane. Congratulations! pic.twitter.com/y8Xgmeq740
— Jeff Dickerson (@DickersonESPN) May 13, 2021
“If you need something to encapsulate or describe who Jeff Dickerson was, that’s it,” said ESPN 1000 host Tom Waddle, a former Bears receiver and close friend of Dickerson’s. “He was there for a colleague that he had the utmost respect for and loved like a brother. He’s at Vaughn’s event honoring Vaughn for a great cause, despite struggling through something himself.”
Dickerson never wavered in his belief that he would beat back cancer, joking with dark humor that he had too much experience with it. In addition to treatment and his work responsibilities, he spent the past year chronicling Parker’s sports activities, traveling with him to basketball and baseball tournaments and attending his fall football games.
Really disappointed that my son’s @LBC_Football Featherweight season ended today. Great year at 9-2 but lots of areas to improve for next season. But youth tackle football is alive and well in Illinois. pic.twitter.com/20qkZAaVBq
— Jeff Dickerson (@DickersonESPN) November 8, 2021
Even after being placed in hospice last week, he told colleagues he was there merely to humor his doctors. No one around him heard a word of self-pity, and he disarmed those who expressed concern by asking them about their own lives.
“JD always wants to know how you’re doing,” Waddle said. “I’d ask him how he’s doing and his first response is, ‘How are you doing? How are [Waddle’s daughters]?’ The dignity with which he has carried himself through some of the most difficult times any human being would be asked to go through, what his wife went through and the dignity and strength and grace that he showed at her side throughout all of this … I don’t know anybody I’ve met in my 54 years in life who has handled adversity over the last decade with more grace and strength and dignity than Jeff Dickerson. I know a lot of people go through [stuff]. I do. I’m sympathetic to all of it. But what Jeff Dickerson has had to go through the last decade is cruel.
“I never heard him once, whether it was what Caitlin was going through, with what he has had to go through, I never once heard him pity himself. Ever. Not once have I ever heard him say that this has gotten the best of me, that I didn’t deserve this. It’s amazing when faced with stuff like this, what strength some individuals have. I never heard a cross word, and it never felt like he thought he has been cheated out of anything.”
Known for his friendly demeanor, clear voice and straight talk, Dickerson reported the facts but was not afraid to tell his listeners and readers what he thought about the Bears. He confronted team management when necessary, but never made a show of it.
During a news conference after the 2020 season, Dickerson politely asked owner George McCaskey if reduced revenues during the COVID-19 pandemic had influenced his decision to retain general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy, rather than fire them and pay out their contracts. McCaskey said that finances did not impact the verdict, prompting additional questions about what did.
Despite rampant skepticism from fans angry about McCaskey’s response, Dickerson reported it without bias, writing simply in a tweet, “George McCaskey says the league wide loss of revenue due to COVID-19 played no role in the decision to retain Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy.”
“We are absolutely heartbroken to learn of the passing of our friend and colleague Jeff Dickerson,” the Bears said in a statement. “Always the consummate professional, JD took a great deal of pride in his coverage of the Bears for 20 years. He was a true professional and even better person. JD always was one of the first media members to arrive in the press box on gameday, with a hello and a smile that could brighten anyone’s day. He was one of a kind, and will truly be missed.”
San Francisco 49ers place-kicker Robbie Gould, who spent 11 seasons with the Bears from 2005 to 2015, remembered Dickerson as a straight shooter who earned the respect of players who appreciated his commitment to accuracy.
“He always carried a care for the subject that he was going to write about,” said Gould, who co-hosted an ESPN 1000 radio show with Dickerson during a portion of his Bears career. “As a player you can appreciate that the wisdom he put on paper was as neutral and correct as it ever was going to be. It was always going to be your words. It was always going to be what the story was. It was never going to be someone filling in the blanks …
“Players definitely noticed. He always wrote a true story. He always wrote what was happening at the moment. He didn’t try to back the bus up over somebody. He tried to get it exactly how the story was. … I think you saw a lot of guys give him a lot of credit because they knew he would write it right.”
Gould said he continued to tune in to Dickerson’s radio appearances and seek out his digital stories after leaving the Bears to sign with the Giants and later the 49ers.
“He was a mentor to me as someone who aspires to get into the media world when football is over,” Gould said, “and I looked up to him.”
Dickerson graduated from Buffalo Grove High School in suburban Chicago and attended the University of Illinois-Champaign. He began covering the Bears for ESPN 1000 radio in 2001, added digital coverage to his duties in 2009 at ESPNChicago.com and then transitioned to ESPN.com in 2013. Along the way, he hosted “Dickerson and Hood” on ESPN radio, served as a television analyst for Loyola men’s basketball and worked as a sports reporter for ABC Channel 7 in Chicago.
Radio was his first love, and over the years he helped dozens of colleagues navigate the medium. One of them was ESPN Minnesota Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin, who approached Dickerson in 2019 for advice about hosting shows.
“Instead of helping me get my foot in the door, JD swung that door wide open for me,” Cronin said. “Not only did he connect me with the people I have grown to consider a part of my family, but he also held my hand and taught me how to walk, so to speak, as I added radio sportscaster to my list of job responsibilities.”
Cronin’s first appearance on ESPN radio came on Memorial Day weekend in 2019 — as a co-host alongside Dickerson. She now regularly appears as a host across ESPN’s schedule.
“Jeff Dickerson owed me nothing, nor did he have to help me get an opportunity that changed the trajectory of my career,” Cronin said. “He taught me what it means to be a great teammate, and he put me on a path that wouldn’t have been possible without his guidance. I’m eternally grateful for the time I was gifted with JD in my life and will carry my teammate, my co-host and my dear friend in my heart with me for the rest of my days.”
Dickerson’s deep personal relationships with colleagues extended to his overnight trips when covering the Bears. Instead of staying in a hotel during his annual excursion to Green Bay, Wisconsin, Dickerson always spent the night as an honored guest of ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and his family.
“That’s how good of a friend JD was,” Demovsky said. “He was the only sports reporter willing to give up those treasured Marriott points to stay with a friend. There’s not a game we looked forward to more than when the Bears came to Green Bay, because it meant JD was staying with us for the weekend.
“On his last trip up here before the pandemic, we went out to dinner and he bought the first bottle of wine — a Pinot Noir he loved called ‘The Prisoner.’ When he first got sick, I told him I would get a bottle of it so we could share it the next time he came to town. A few weeks ago, he told me he wouldn’t be able to make the trip this year because his health had worsened, but he told me not to worry because he would be back next year to share that bottle and redeem his ‘Demovsky points’ for another night’s stay.
“In his last days, he sensed the fear in my voice that it would never happen. At a time when I should’ve been comforting him, he was comforting me. We should all hope to be the friend to others that JD was to us.”