Prologue: Just Another Great Day Prologue Just Another Great Day
The alarm went off around 6:00 a.m. in our hotel room at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. My wife, Susan, and I were in a bedroom on one end of our suite, while our two younger sons, eighteen-year-old Willie and fourteen-year-old Teddy, were sharing the bedroom at the other end. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2004, and after a terrific week celebrating the holiday in L.A. with all five of our children and a collection of friends, we were heading back east.
As Susan got out of bed to pack the last few things in our suitcases, I went into the bathroom to get ready. Our trip would have a few stops. First, our private plane would land in Colorado and drop off Susan and her friend Rebecca—the wife of Susan’s ex-husband, Tom (yes, you read that right; to this day, our family happily thrives off our unconventionality). They’d spend a few days prepping the house we owned in the mountains of Telluride for Christmas. Next, the plane would head to South Bend, Indiana, to drop off our older son Charlie, who was in the middle of his senior year at Notre Dame. Then, by early evening, the plane would land in Hartford, Connecticut, and I’d drop Teddy off at the Gunnery, a boarding school where he was a freshman, before I finally drove to our home in Litchfield, a small town in the bucolic northwest corner of the state where I’d grown up as a public school kid, never dreaming I’d be able to live this kind of life. Then, first thing the next morning, I’d take a car into New York City and go to my office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, to continue working on one of the most exciting deals of my career.
As the head of the sports and Olympics division for NBC since 1989, I’d made big deals, taken huge risks, solved difficult problems, and built lasting relationships. I’d joined forces with NBA commissioner David Stern to create arguably the most successful partnership between a network and a sports league in history with the NBA on NBC; turned NBC into America’s Olympic network through a series of deals with the International Olympic Committee that ensured the Games would be on our air through 2012; and through Super Bowls, World Series, major golf tournaments, Grand Slam tennis events, and more, lived out a career that I only could have dreamed about as a kid, watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports on TV at home.
ABC Sports had in fact been where I’d started my career, as the network’s first-ever Olympic researcher, working for the legendary Roone Arledge and traveling the world as a twenty-year-old kid who’d dropped out of Yale at the height of the Vietnam War to take the job. Not long after, I’d get promoted to be Roone’s assistant, getting a front-row seat to everything he did, from sitting in on executive meetings in his place to delivering files to him at the 21 Club when he met at the restaurant with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to iron out the deal to create Monday Night Football. Then I’d left sports for a while, taking an offer from NBC to join its entertainment division to start a weekend late night comedy show, and finding an unknown producer named Lorne Michaels and co-creating Saturday Night Live. From there, I’d work in worlds as disparate as talk, music, and professional wrestling, but came back to my first love when I took the NBC Sports job in ’89.
The full-circle nature of my path had also been on my mind throughout Thanksgiving week—especially given my tiny role in the creation of Monday Night Football. On my way to Los Angeles, I’d made a brief but important stop in Denver. There, my number two, Ken Schanzer, and I had met with the owner of the Broncos, Pat Bowlen, the head of the NFL’s television committee, to pitch him on a simple but seismic proposal: to reinvent pro football on prime-time television by moving the league’s top prime-time game every week from Monday to Sunday—to essentially replace Monday Night Football on ABC with Sunday Night Football on NBC. We’d been out of football since I’d made the decision to walk away from our coverage in 1998—but I was excited to try to bring us back, which could be a huge boon to the network’s struggling ratings overall. For his part, Pat was definitely intrigued; we’d been talking on and off about the idea for months, but that meeting just before Thanksgiving was the first time that money had come up as part of the discussion. Any time ten figures were thrown around with a straight face in a media deal, it was a definite sign that things were serious.
Back in our hotel room in Los Angeles, Susan and I very quietly woke up Teddy to tell him to get ready to head to the airport. Willie, a freshman at USC, was staying in California to finish out the semester. After years of fighting relentlessly as brothers do, Willie and Teddy had matured, and were closer than ever. They’d stayed up late the night before playing video games. Now Teddy dragged himself out of bed and put on his clothes as we tiptoed out of the room so as not to wake up Willie.
A half hour later, we arrived at the small airport in Van Nuys for private planes. Our plane was a Challenger CL-600, with two pairs of seats facing one another up front on either side, and then a couch and another four facing seats in the back. The pilots and flight attendant boarded the plane and briefly said hello. We’d been told the night before that a severe snowstorm in Telluride made it too difficult to fly there, so our first stop would be another small Colorado airport, at the lower altitude of Montrose, a longer drive for Susan and Rebecca to our house, but otherwise not a concern. Charlie, who’d been staying with a girlfriend in Los Angeles, went right to the back of the plane and fell asleep on the couch. Up front, seated facing backward, opposite me, Teddy turned on his personal video player and for roughly the twentieth time since he’d gotten the DVD just a few days before, he began watching the highlight video of his beloved Boston Red Sox’s improbable journey to their first World Series title in eighty-six years.
I’d loved everything about sports for as long as I could remember, and my job took me to stadiums, ballparks, arenas, racetracks, and golf courses across the globe. At one point in the nineties, when President Bill Clinton had said to me, very sincerely, “You have the best job in the world,” it was hard for me to argue with him. But while Charlie and Willie had always shared my passion, Teddy had only grown interested in sports over the last few years. I suppose part of it was normal childhood rebellion—wanting to forge a different identity than his dad. That might’ve also been why, when he did get into baseball, he chose the Red Sox as his team rather than the Yankees, who I’d rooted for since I was his age. But I didn’t mind. Teddy’s newfound love of baseball had bonded us more deeply than ever before, and as he got the DVD cued up, we talked about the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming free agency market for the Sox.
“Pedro just can’t leave,” Teddy was saying about his team’s longtime ace, Pedro Martinez. “Not after they finally won!”
As Teddy and I analyzed how much money it would take to re-sign Pedro, on the other side of the small aisle, Susan opened her book and began reading. We’d just celebrated our twenty-third anniversary, which gave me another reason to be in a reflective mood. We’d met when she was the host of a Saturday Night Live episode in 1981, and I was the producer of the show. A few years later, when her hit sitcom Kate & Allie ended, she decided to walk away from her career to raise our kids. She never seemed to miss Hollywood, and loved being a mom, particularly to the youngest, Teddy. They were inseparable. But now that he had gone off to boarding school, it felt like a new phase of our life was beginning. And even more so with the prospect of the NFL deal and the exciting challenge that it posed. It was a deal that could shake up the television world, and change the landscape of the way millions of fans watched America’s most popular sport every week during the fall. It had the potential to be the greatest achievement of my career—or the biggest failure. Either way, it could end up defining my professional legacy.
But at that moment, I wasn’t thinking too hard about the intricacies of the deal points. There’d be plenty of time for that in the weeks and months ahead. Right then, I was just looking at my family and thinking of how lucky we were. All together, traveling in such comfort and luxury. Just us, with the flight attendant handing out some coffee and juice and letting us know breakfast would be coming soon.
The plane took off from California a little after 8:00 a.m. In Colorado, the snow was beginning to come down hard.