Reusse: A salute to toughness, Denise and Mark Rosen

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Patrick Reusse, Star Tribune
·6 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Members of the Draghiciu family arrived at Ellis Island from Romania. They attempted to give a proper spelling of the surname with no background in English.

The clerk went with "Drag" on the official document and, generations later, Dennis and older sister Denise were the Drags as they went through the public schools of Gary, Ind., during the 1960s.

They were serenaded in hallways with the 1967 hit "Kind of a Drag" on occasion. The surname did work great for their father when he sat down for a high-stakes poker game and a fellow gambler shouted: "Make room for Johnny Drag."

Dennis was on a phone conversation, but you could sense him smiling and shaking his head over Dad, who died from lung cancer at 63 in 1986.

"We were going through old photos and he showed me a Polaroid of a poker game in Michigan City, Indiana," Dennis said. "Abe Gibron, the coach with the Bears, was playing. And then I said, 'Dad, who's that?'

"He said, 'I don't know. Everyone called him Momo.' I said, 'Dad, that's Sam Giancana. You were playing poker with the No. 1 mob guy in the country.' "

Dennis changed his name to Draghiciu long ago. And since 1977, Denise has been Rosen, after marrying a not-then-famous Twin Cities sports reporter, Mark Rosen, when both were young and drawing mediocre wages at WCCO TV. Denise, a talented and productive artist throughout life, was designing graphics.

I've been in the Twin Cities sports market continuously since 1968. Rosen dates to 1969. He was still in high school, when neighbor and WCCO reporter Phil Jones (later at CBS) got Rosen in the door as gofer for sports anchor Hal Scott.

Somehow, I never imagined Rosey's bride to be someone who grew up in Gary with a dad who played poker with wiseguys called "Momo."

Rosen smiled and said: "John was an all-time character and Helen, Denise's mother, was a saint. Plus, she was Greek — Helen Sourlis — and what a cook."

Rosen's long history in Minnesota sports is tied most closely to the Vikings. They were the source of a Sunday night show that started in 1981, morphed into "Rosen's Sports Sunday" and ran until the middle of 2016.

You don't meet any tougher athletes than football players. Top of the list?

"Away from football, I'd put Rod Carew, with what he's gone through since he was brought back from that heart attack by paramedics, and then waited for a transplant, as tough as anybody," Rosen said.

"As an athlete playing his sport, it would be Jim Marshall. Playing every game for the Vikings, where he played … he's No. 1."

And No. 1 as a nonathlete?

"When you're seeing it every day, living it with her, that would be Denise."

• • •

The Rosens balanced Mark's schedule of sports anchoring, as well as traveling for numerous years for Vikings games and big Minnesota sports stories, with raising Nick, now 35, and Chloe, 31.

"Denise's first priority always was raising the kids," said Wendy Blackshaw, a former sister-in-law and still closest of friends with Denise. "She had to be everything, including the disciplinarian.

"Mark … we all love Mark, but he could come home and say, 'Hey, who wants to go to a ballgame!' "

Denise was having lunch with Nick in July 2018. She went to do the math for a proper tip and the simple task escaped her.

A couple of other unfamiliar reactions appeared and she went to see her doctor. Within hours, Denise had been told of a brain tumor, and it turned out to be glioblastoma, the most aggressive of brain cancers.

"There is no link to heredity, no reason it happens to you, but I can tell you this: Never once have I heard Denise say, 'Why me?' " Rosen said.

He paused, smiled slightly, and said: "OK, once. We were at the farmers market one afternoon not long after the diagnosis and there was someone acting like a complete idiot. And Denise said, 'Why do I have brain cancer and he doesn't?' "

The Rosens were in Key West with Wendy and John Blackshaw in February 2020.

"We had a great time," Wendy said. "Every once in a while, we would hear someone mention a virus, but nobody seemed worried walking around Key West."

The pandemic shutdown took away regular movie dates and dinners out for the Rosens. The cancer demanded an initial delicate surgery, followed by a long series of radiation, then chemo and other treatments. Those have stopped, and Denise now has lost her verbal skills.

As John McCain demonstrated to the nation in recent times, glioblastoma is a relentless enemy with basically a predetermined outcome.

"She showed an amazing ability to bounce back through all of this," Rosen said.

• • •

Mark became the main sports anchor at WCCO in the early '80s. He gained popularity, and then started regular sports hits on the KQRS morning show.

"I was there a bit before Tom Barnard," Rosen said. "We hit it off. We were growing an audience."

Rosen was the serious sports guy who could laugh. Barnard and Co. were straight from the hip. And then in 1986, the KQ morning crew decided it would be a fine idea to run "Little Marky Rosen" for governor against DFLer Rudy Perpich and GOPer Cal Ludeman.

"We did the screaming and hollering, and Rosey was the straight man," Barnard said. "It was perfect."

Rosen wound up getting 9,000 write-in votes. "If he had been on the ballot, he might've won," Barnard said.

Later, there was Rosen's sports bar on First Avenue. "We opened right before the 1991 World Series," Rosen said. "I got a call after Game 7 from a bartender. He said, 'Charlie Sheen's in here.'

"Charlie Sheen … drinking in Rosen's, and we'd been open, what, a month?"

Fame didn't make him loud. Strong-willed Denise has helped make sure of that.

He remains "Rosey," retired from TV, still the good-natured straight sports guy (and movies, if asked) with KFAN's morning show and five days a week, 2-3 p.m., with Dan Cole.

He worked at WCCO-TV with two legendary nice guys, "R.J." (Ralph Jon Fritz) and "Hanny" (Tom Hanneman), and was shattered by their recent deaths.

Denise helped him through that, and now they are trying to help one another through these hardest of days. With the kids.

"Chloe lives in town, works at 'CCO, and she's been the rock," Rosen said. "Nick's been here from the West Coast for the past two weeks, and he'll be back."

No surprise to Wendy Blackshaw.

"Denise always has been the best mom," she said. "Most of my lessons about motherhood came from her."