He's never played a down of competitive football, but you wouldn't know it by the way Mark Rosen is revered on the Vikings sidelines.
"Rosieeee!" screams a voice from the TCF Bank Stadium stands. "How you doin'?"
Legendary defensive lineman Jim Marshall teases him about the early '70s, when the sportscaster had to lug around his own camera. Comedian Nick Swardson wraps him in a hug. A woman in San Diego Chargers colors asks for a photo while pledging her allegiance, if not to the purple, then at least to the Twin Cities' most enduring TV personality.
Upstairs in the press box, he's approached by former Vikings coach Jerry Burns. "Mark," says the legendary grouch, flashing a rare grin. "I want to be like you someday."
But being like Rosen — a reporter who's more famous than most of the athletes he covers — is becoming nearly impossible, as instant sports delivered via smartphone makes TV anchors seem as antiquated as the town crier.
"There was a time the sports guy was bigger than life. That's no longer the case," said Don Shafer, news director at San Diego's XETV, which eliminated its sports department six years ago. "When kids talk to me about wanting to do sports when they grow up, I tell them, 'You better have a firm grasp on reality.' " Nationwide, most stations have whittled the time for sports updates in half.
And yet, Rosen remains.
Only a slight hobble in his left leg — the result of a recent knee surgery — and his encyclopedic knowledge of Minnesota sports give away the fact that, at 63, he's been a member of the WCCO family for 46 years, making him the longest-tenured TV sports personality in any U.S. market.
"I've been in the right place at the right time," said Rosen in his unthreatening baritone, which sounds like a game-show host who can't wait to tell you what's behind Door No. 1.
While his stiffest competition has retired or moved on, Rosen is still embedded in the wild world of sports, whether deflecting jabs from the jocular morning crew at KFAN Radio (1130 AM) or breaking down the Wild's playoff chances on "Rosen's Sports Sunday," a late-night staple since 1981.
He's Gary Cooper in "High Noon," standing up alone to the gunslinger who insists his kind should catch the next stagecoach out of town — a lonely image, yet one that plays perfectly to Rosen's lesser known persona: the movie buff.
The great escape
The young Mark Rosen may have awakened every morning to a Harmon Killebrew poster and Hank Aaron bobblehead, but his nights belonged to Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster — tough guys who shot first and did multiplication tables later.
Rosen's father, Joe, worked as a distributor for Paramount Pictures. While Mark's classmates in St. Louis Park were engrossed in "101 Dalmatians," he was front and center for "The Longest Day" and "Spartacus." Mom also helped plant the seed. Doris Rosen was a natural ham who dreamed of becoming an actress.
Fans that Rosen encounters on a coffee run are more likely to get a DVD recommendation than a prediction on the next Gophers game.
He pined after Grace Kelly, but was distracted from his dream of wooing Hollywood starlets when a different kind of tough guy moved in across the street.
Phil Jones was a reporter for WCCO, Channel 4, who later became a CBS White House correspondent.
"I was fascinated by watching Phil be this reporter on TV and then come home and cut his lawn," Rosen said.
Rosen bugged his neighbor for the chance to meet WCCO sports anchor Hal Scott, maybe pick up some odd jobs at the station.
Jones finally relented. The 17-year-old had his foot in the door.
During his junior year at the University of Minnesota, Rosen decided to drop out and go all-in at WCCO.
From the get-go, his signature style was on display. Folksy, but never overbearing. Confident, not cocky. A firm handshake, not a slap on the back. The Minnesota way.
"His knowledge exceeded anyone he ever competed with, but he never flaunted it," said former Vikings coach Bud Grant. "He likes scoops, but he never betrayed a confidence."
Former WCCO anchor Don Shelby remembers how the two of them loosened up the newsroom, sweating through their white shirts while tossing footballs over news directors' heads and playing hallway hockey with film canisters.
"Part of it was boyish fun," Shelby said. "Part of it was building camaraderie."
Rosen's desk, which pedestrians can peek at through WCCO's windows on Nicollet Mall, still looks like it was taken over by a kid. It's littered with a Wheaties box from the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team; coasters promoting his 2012 autobiography, "Best Seat in the House," and three remote controls so he can keep up with a myriad of games.
One of his favorite punching bags, Shelby, is no longer around, but he makes do with political whiz Pat Kessler, who's gotten used to Rosen's gentle ribbing.
Rosen's soft sarcasm served him well when he got his biggest — and most unexpected — break.
Rosen was supposed to provide sports updates when Tom Barnard launched a show in the mid-'80s on then-low-flying KQRS (92.5 FM). Barnard had just come from New York and loved bad-mouthing our local teams.
"No one around here had heard anything like that, but instead of recoiling in horror, Mark went along with it," he said.
The show leapfrogged to the top of the ratings in 1986, and an ad-libbed joke about the lack of enthusiasm over that year's gubernatorial candidates led to a write-in campaign for "Little Marky." In a matter of weeks, lawn signs supporting Rosen popped up and listeners sent in jingles.
Rosen got 8,000 votes.
His popularity didn't go unnoticed by the brass at CBS, which owned WCCO Radio (830 AM) and TV. They wanted Rosen playing for both of their teams, an offer he couldn't refuse.
"I had them over a barrel, PR-wise, but was I willing to jeopardize my TV career for KQ? Ultimately, no," said Rosen, who called the decision the most painful of his career. He burst into tears after his final signoff with Barnard.
Rosen was flying high in the '90s. He opened a namesake bar in the Warehouse District, and his Sunday night show was drawing 20 percent of local TV viewers, making him as big a star as the athletes.
But at what price? Rosen, the father of two, regrets that road games meant missing out on his two children's activities.
His oldest son's message to Pop: No worries.
"I always knew he was doing his best," said Nicholas Rosen, now a film and music-video editor in Los Angeles. "I don't remember him missing a lot of soccer games or music recitals. Mom did a really good job helping my sister and I understand why he was gone."
Plus, being Rosen's son meant meeting Kevin Garnett and Kirby Puckett. It also meant getting interrupted during family outings.
"We were at his restaurant having dinner once, and this guy came up to us and started patting me on the head and touching my back," said Nicholas, who was 12 or 13 at the time. "I could see my dad gritting his teeth. When he finally walked away my dad said, 'Don't touch my kid.' You could tell he was frustrated. He was always very protective."
Rosen is also quick to defend his younger co-workers — even if they don't always return the favor. When he walks into the studios at iHeartMedia-owned KFAN, which hired him in 1998 after WCCO Radio let him go, the station's personalities take a recess from bantering about baseball to treat the elder statesman with all the respect a sixth-grader would give a substitute teacher. Their favorite targets: Rosen's lengthy vacations and his not-so-subtle plugs for CBS shows.
"Keeps you fresh, keeps you humble, this place," said Rosen, right before recording an ad for a mortgage company.
The harder they fall
Teasing is nothing compared with the hit that most of Rosen's peers have taken in the past decade.
Dennis Janson, the dean of Cincinnati sports for decades, took a $100,000 pay cut and, in 2013, shifted to on-air columnist. Buffalo's John Murphy, frustrated by growing demands and shorter airtime, went to work for the Buffalo Bills in 2012. KARE's Randy Shaver moved over to the news anchor desk.
"When I was growing up in Cedar Rapids, the sports guys were gods," Shaver said.
The first death knell was round-the-clock competition from cable outlets such as ESPN. ("I used to tell Dan Patrick that his intros were longer than my sportscast," Janson said.) The second: weathercasts.
"I never met a TV consultant who said sports is important. Weather comes first," said Scott Jones, a former news director who founded FTVLive, a Florida-based website focused on local TV. "Sports guys who were used to seven or eight minutes on weekends now get 2½, less if rain is coming."
Sports anchors in the top 25 markets earned an average salary of $118,800 in 2014, according to the Radio-Television Digital News Association, compared with $125,000 for meteorologists.
Rosen won't share the details of his contract, which expires in 2017, but says he's taken a pay cut in recent years.
His restaurant closed in 2011. He survived a round of heavy layoffs at WCCO in the early 2000s, although his ego took a blow when the station hired sports reporter Anne Hutchinson — a lightning rod due to her youth and on-air chumminess with athletes — without consulting him.
"There was a period where I wondered if they respected the credibility I had built up, but it didn't last long," Rosen said.
These days, Rosen is still standing tall.
During the Vikings rout of the Chargers, the 6-foot-5 old-school pro methodically jotted details in longhand of every play — three pages for just the opening quarter — while monitoring messages on his cellphone and iPad. He skipped the buffet table, opting for a granola bar from his prime seat pressed up against the glass window of the press box, a sterile clubhouse where jaded writers resemble mourners at a distant cousin's funeral.
During halftime, he popped over to the KFAN booth, where he's helped the morning show pose a serious threat in the ratings to — who else? — Barnard. And WCCO's nightly newscasts are still tops in total viewers.
"Some stations have cut way back on sports, but you do things differently when you have someone like Mark," said WCCO news director Mike Caputa.
Rosen said he hasn't given serious thought to retiring, although the recent death of a close friend has him thinking a bit more about mortality.
"Losing my friend has me cherishing relationships more than ever," he said a few days after returning from the funeral in California. "I still love what I'm doing. I'm not ready to just play golf every day and sit on a beach. I feel like I'm in control of my future. I don't think anyone will have to tell me when it's time to go."