Ebersol, who says Spears has an "enormous heart," shares how being bullied shaped his life's mission
PEOPLE spoke with the 31-year-old writer, producer and entrepreneur – whose parents are Saturday Night Live co-creator and NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol and actress Susan Saint James – who co-founded The Company, an entertainment business that creates TV shows for cable and network channels. The Company also produced the heartwarming documentary NFL Characters Unite (airing Feb. 6, 2015 at 7 p.m. ET) on the USA Network.
Ebersol’s 4th annual NFL Characters Unite, which counts the YMCA as a partner, profiles NFL stars as they share deeply personal stories of overcoming prejudice, bullying and discrimination, with the goal of helping young people facing similar challenges.
This year’s documentary features Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles (who struggled to cope without a father in his life), Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles (who battled to conquer a debilitating stutter), Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams (whose career was nearly sidelined after losing a loved one in the war in Iraq) and 2014 Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl champion cornerback Richard Sherman (who fought to escape gang violence).
Tell us about NFL Characters Unite
Four years ago, we set up a show with USA Network and the NFL, and the idea was simple: I was struck by the number of professional athletes who have overcome obstacles in their lives – be it bullying, discrimination, domestic abuse. I got close to a couple of NFL players, and I said to them, “You can connect with kids in your community. You can change lives.” We pair NFL players with kids in their teams’ hometowns who are going through the exact same obstacle as the players went through.
How have you seen lives impacted and changed by this interaction?
This year, we really began to see the effects on kids who met their NFL counterparts four years ago. One of the players checks in with his mentee every single week. You never expect an NFL player – celebrity athletes who are millionaires – to have gone through these battles. That’s why it works. When you meet someone who’s very successful, they’re usually all in on something. This has become a religion to the players.
Why is this project so personally meaningful to you?
I was bullied very badly in high school. … I was a very successful kid. I sold my first company at a young age. There was a lot of misplaced rage in high school towards me. My brothers and sisters identified it as bullying, but I didn’t at the time. What was amazing to me was I started feeling I wasn’t worthy of being loved I ended up blocking this from my memory. It wasn’t until I was saying to my brother [Willie, who directed NFL Characters Unite], “I couldn’t imagine ever being bullied,” and he said, “You lived this!” It all came back in a flood.
This is also meaningful to me because this is the 10-year anniversary of the Nov. 28, 2004, plane crash that claimed the lives of everyone but me and my father, who I pulled from the wreckage My little brother was 14 when he died in the crash, and I remember [NBA legend] Bill Walton coming up to me at the funeral and saying, “You now carry the responsibility of two lives. How do you want that responsibility to live through you?” It was profound. In the face of things like this, I still had to remember I was blessed. The mission of my company is to bring three things to the world through entertainment: joy, happiness, and change. We must believe our precious time is being used to make a product worth more than anything else we could be doing. I had everything, but I had to work hard to find love.
Which leads in to the obvious question: You have found love with Britney Spears. Can you share what you love most about her?
My personal life is my personal life, but I will say this: If I had not gone through what I’ve gone through, I would not have been prepared to be in a relationship of any kind, much less in one with someone like Britney, who has the enormous heart that she does. I can’t imagine. Everybody deserves to be loved. My hope is that lesson shines forth in this documentary, and in life.