Even after tragedy, Ebersol family a powerful example of how father-son bond never fades
Eighteen years haven’t dulled the memory for Charlie Ebersol. He can vividly recall his final conversation with his 14-year-old brother, Teddy, as their 18-seat charter jet was taxiing down that snowy Colorado runway.
Charlie, returning to college at Notre Dame, was in the back of the plane, and Boston Red Sox-obsessed Teddy was sitting near the front with their dad, legendary TV executive and lifelong New York Yankees fan Dick Ebersol.
“My dad and Teddy are talking up front,” Charlie said. “We haven’t taken off yet. And my dad says to Teddy, ‘Why baseball?’ And Teddy said, ‘I wanted something that you and I could talk about.’ And my dad said, ‘Wow,’ and then my dad thinks for a second and says, ‘OK, but then why the Red Sox?’
“And Teddy said, ‘See Charlie back there? He’s the Yankee fan and he’s sitting in the back of the plane. I’m the Red Sox fan and I’m up here talking to you.’
“Thirty seconds later the plane crashed and Teddy died.”
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“We always felt that we were so unbelievably embraced by so many people, the whole Red Sox Nation,” said Dick, who was severely injured in the accident — the aircraft couldn’t get airborne and crashed on takeoff — and was carried unconscious from the wreckage by Charlie moments before the plane burst into flames. The captain and flight attendant were killed, along with Teddy.
“The people who reached out, who didn’t hesitate whether we were in Boston or someplace in New England, would come up and say, ‘Can I give you a hug?’” he said, his voice barely audible at this point. “It was pretty phenomenal.”
On the banks of the Charles River, six miles from where golf’s U.S. Open is being played in Brookline, Mass., is an enduring memory to Teddy — three ballfields in the middle of downtown Boston, a public complex that was the brainchild of Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner and are meticulously maintained by the team’s grounds crew.
The fields feature a granite bench bearing Teddy’s name, the Red Sox slogan “Curse Reversed 2004” — a reference to their first World Series win that ended an 86-year drought — and a bronzed baseball glove, a replica of Teddy’s constant companion which also was lost in the crash. His original glove was a garish turquoise and white, and he was always up for a game of catch with his dad, brothers or sister.
Werner is a close family friend of the Ebersols, as is New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who also contributed to the project. Instrumental, too, was Mitt Romney, who was governor of Massachusetts throughout the creation of the fields, which were created in 2006. Ebersol and Romney were close friends from their days working on the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
Ebersol, who stepped down as chairman of NBC Sports in 2011, retraces a remarkable career that began when he dropped out of Yale in the early 1970s to work for ABC’s Roone Arledge as television’s first Olympics researcher, and included the landmark creations of both “Saturday Night Live” and “Sunday Night Football.”
His enduring inspiration through the best and worst of those times was his wife, actress Susan Saint James, whom he met when she guest-hosted “SNL” in 1981 and married within a year. She has been an open book about the loss of her son, helping countless other parents navigate their worst nightmares.
“Tim Russert was a close family friend and his summer house was 20 minutes from here,” said Ebersol, speaking from his home in Litchfield, Conn. “He was in news at NBC and I was in sports. He had Susie on the “Today Show” three or four days after the crash.
“If you watch it, you get the unbelievable sense of how strong she is and was. It impacted thousands of people across the country. The amount of mail was incredible. She touched so many hearts. It wasn’t her feeling sorry for herself or her family. She was trying to tell so many other families she knew must be in grief in our country how to deal with it.”
The Ebersols are a blended family. Saint James was previously married to makeup artist Tom Lucas, and they had a son, Harmony, and daughter, Sunshine. Ebersol and Saint James later had sons Charlie, Willie and Teddy.
“We don’t use the term stepfather or step-parent in this family,” Ebersol said. “[Harmony and Sunshine] have their dad who they adore. We all kind of get along.”
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the depths of despair, when the family grew even closer in the wake of Teddy’s death. The accident happened on Nov. 28, 2004, a day after Matt Leinart threw for 400 yards in leading USC over Notre Dame 41-10, at the Coliseum. Willie was at USC; Charlie at Notre Dame.
Four Ebersols — the parents, Charlie and Teddy — departed from Van Nuys that Sunday morning and headed for Colorado, where Susan planned to get the family’s vacation home in Telluride ready for Christmas. The plane landed in Montrose, Colo., where it was refueled and Susan got off.
“The fire was astronomical because the plane had just been fully refueled,” Ebersol said. “Meanwhile, Susie doesn’t know that anything’s happened because she’s in the mountains and can’t get a cell signal. It’s only when she reaches one spot in the mountains where she could get a signal that Charlie reached her and told her there had been a crash.”
Because Teddy’s glove was lost in the crash, the Ebersols reached out to Mizuno for one that was identical down to the last detail. The family then sent it around so everyone would have a chance to break it in. The glove was then bronzed by the same foundry that handled the famed “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture in Boston Public Garden.
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It isn’t just the ballfields named in Teddy’s honor. The Liberty Hotel across the street, owned by close friends of the Ebersols, renamed the presidential suite for him. Copper Beech trees in Litchfield were planted in his memory, and a school named its library after him.
Even now for Charlie, some reminders make the world stop turning.
“You know that song ‘Drift Away’ by Dobie Gray? ... ‘Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock ‘n roll and drift away,’” he said. “That was Teddy’s favorite song. If I’m driving and that song comes on the radio, I have to pull over because I’m on the verge of tears.”
Sunshine has a favorite photo. It’s of her daughter, Rowena, who is 16 months old at the time and kissing the bronze glove at Teddy’s field.
“I think I was most touched about Teddy when I had my own children and realized just how devastating that would be if anything ever happened to them,” she said.
Rowena turned 14 this year, the same age as the uncle she never knew.
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