Luke Russert still remembers that hot summer day nearly 30 years ago. He was 9 years old, walking through a concourse at Camden Yards with his father, legendary political journalist Tim Russert. As they headed to their seats for a Baltimore Orioles game, they got separated in the crush of the crowd. Luke fell behind as his dad walked 10 to 15 feet ahead. Never losing sight of each other, the elder Russert turned against the current of fans, eventually making his way to his son.
“He put his arm around my shoulder and grasped my hand and he said, ‘Listen, if we’re ever separated, just look for me there,’ and he pointed to a hotdog stand with the Oriole bird on it,” Luke recalled. “But then he pulled me close and said, ‘We’ll never be separated.'”
Three decades later, Luke’s memory of that moment inspired the title of his new book, “Look for Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself.”
In 2008, Tim Russert died from a heart attack at the age of 58. He collapsed at work on the Friday before Father’s Day, his favorite holiday. Luke, who was 22 at the time and had just graduated from college, delivered a heartfelt eulogy at Washington National Cathedral in front of a crowd of dignitaries that included then-President George W. Bush and presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.
Weeks later, Luke threw himself into work — following in his father’s footsteps and starting an eight-year career as a correspondent for NBC News. He covered youth issues in politics and eventually Congress. But in 2016, at the age of 30, Luke walked away from his life in Washington, D.C., and embarked on a journey to finally grieve for his father and try to answer the question of who he was beyond his father’s shadow.
Over the course of three years, he traveled to more than 60 countries to explore the world and discover himself.
He recently sat down with ESPN to discuss what he’s learned in the 15 years since his father’s death and how he found comfort in sports. Here are excerpts from that conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.
Your dad was expressive in his love for you. He spoke about it openly. He even wrote books about fatherhood. (Tim Russert wrote “Big Russ and Me” about his relationship with his own father, and “Wisdom of Our Fathers” on lessons learned from other fathers around the country). How meaningful was that to you?
My father, he grew up in an Irish Catholic family in South Buffalo. He was the only boy. He had three sisters, and my grandfather worked 40 years as a garbage man and a truck driver. That generation, the most you’d get was a hug and a pat on the head and “Good job, son.” And that was it and my dad knew that. He knew that my grandfather, in his heart of hearts was a very sweet, loving, compassionate guy, but that World War II generation they didn’t show much emotion.
My father was certainly softer. I think he realized that he wanted to project all the love that he had felt from his own father but had never truly received in action.
He wanted to project that out onto me. So, we grew up exceptionally close. You know, he gave me hugs. He would say, “Love you, buddy.” And I always knew that there was a very strong bond, that he took a great interest in me. He never really left me untethered. It was that, you know, “You’re my guy. I’m going to look out for you and take care of you.”
That was my guiding light, that was my North Star. So when he passed, it was incredibly difficult because there was such a void.
You and your father were avid sports fans with season tickets to the Baltimore Orioles and later the Washington Nationals. You write about watching Buffalo Bills games with him. What did all that time mean to you?
The most important thing I feel that a parent can give their children is time. And as it pertains to sports, that’s very honest time because you have the time of the game. You have the time driving to and from it too. The thing I liked just as much as going to the baseball games with my dad were the car rides because that was time to catch up on the week.
And then as it pertained to football, it was so fun because we were constantly calling my uncles or calling my cousins [during Bills games] and so there was that familial aspect to it. I think what was so special, more so than anything else, was that it’s something, especially fandom, that you carry forward.
You know, my dad’s gone, but I still carry the Buffalo Bills and, God willing, I have a kid someday and they carry on the Buffalo Bills. They’re not allowed to be Patriots fans. They’re not, but it’s that sort of passion that you can share, which is so deeply meaningful. It really is.
What does it mean for you to still have the same seats at National Park, where you saw your last game together?
It’s therapeutic for me. It’s cathartic. I keep my father’s seat open, and I like doing that. Some people get awkward and say, “Oh, should I come sit with you?” I’ll tell them I’m good, because I know the people around this section. [But really,] I’m having a moment here. I like to relive that one game that I had with him here. It’s special to me.
And I think there are so many people that have stories like that, which is, you gravitate toward it because it’s joy. Sports are ultimately joy.
It wasn’t just watching games together. He also attended your games?
He always wanted to be present at my games, whether it was baseball or football or basketball. Sometimes it was hilarious because I would be like, “You know, Dad, this is an exhibition game, don’t worry about it, we’re three hours away from D.C., it’s not a big deal.”
But he would say, “I gotta be there.” He would orchestrate his schedule as much as possible around games. When I was in Little League, sometimes he would coach third base and a few times he even would take a call from someone very important while coaching third base and then just hang up on them for the game, which was great.
When I was playing high school baseball, we would do a spring training trip down to Florida and he would figure out ways to get an interview within Florida politics to justify going down there.
He’d say, “I just have to interview the governor of Florida or the senator from Florida,” or, “This individual in Florida is going to be big on the national scene. I should get down there and interview them.”
The team loved it. We loved it. He would go to these small towns in Florida, hang out at the family barbecues and chat people up. It was very special to have Dad there and being so intertwined with the team.
What is your favorite sports memory with your father?
My favorite memory with my father is an interesting one. It was in 1999 when we went to the [men’s] Final Four in St. Petersburg, Florida, when Duke played the University of Connecticut. Nobody gave UConn any kind of chance to win, and as we were walking in, my dad’s like, “I think UConn’s going to win.”
I said, “No, they’re not.” And Dad’s saying, “I think they have a good chance.”
We had always cheered against Duke growing up because I think Duke was sort of the anti-Buffalo to my father.
So, we were cheering for UConn, and they pulled off the upset and I just remember him distinctly looking at me saying, “You Gotta Believe!”
I always remember that one.
Your dad and now you have a special connection to the city of Buffalo and the NFL team, why is that?
No team personifies the community like the Buffalo Bills do, and my father was a fan of the team since their inception. He often bragged about how he went to their two AFL titles before they merged with the NFL in the early ’60s. Just a die-hard fan of the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills represented an ability for my dad to stay connected to Buffalo. He moved on to a different city and had a career, one I don’t think he ever dreamed he would ever attain, but the Bills kept him grounded.
My father prided himself on being relatable and he loved the Bills. I don’t think he could keep it inside, especially when they went to those Super Bowls. He lived and died for that team, loved that team and would take any opportunity he could to inject that team into the national consciousness.
Every single Sunday I watch the Bills, because during those three and a half hours, he’s still alive. And you can go back to those moments in time, you can smell the chicken wings, you can smell the beer, you can hear the cursing, you can feel all those moments of sitting on that couch.
Just coming together, father and son, but bonding over something that honestly is the representation of that beautiful city. There’s no team that has a stronger bond with community than Buffalo Bills.
What’s been so interesting is I’ve gotten all these letters from folks who are scattered around America who say, “I root for the Bills because of your dad. I have no connection to Buffalo, but I always saw the joy on his face when he talked about the Bills and say man, they need to win for that guy.”
I mean, where else do you get that except for Buffalo?
The Bills come up a lot in your book. You pray for them to win the Super Bowl at a temple in Kyoto, and you end your book with a moving letter to your father. What would it mean for the Bills to finally win a Super Bowl?
You reference a story where you go through these gates in Japan and you have this opportunity to offer up a prayer to the deity of the mountain and it’s your one shot. I pray for the Bills to win the Super Bowl. That’s all I want and I choke up now talking about it.
What would it mean? All those years, all that trauma just off the shoulders of an entire community. And all those ghosts are celebrating. Oh, it’d be incredible. When I was doing the audiobook, it was the only time that we had to do multiple takes, because I was choking up, talking about the Bills winning the Super Bowl.
It’s one of those things you think about and you don’t want to jinx it, but I often think about what if that were to happen? What would that mean?
After he died, you started covering Congress. We first met working for different TV news networks, and I noticed from our time on the Hill that members of Congress would mention your dad. It seemed like you were unable to escape it. How much was that part of leaving?
I think it’s something that in the beginning it didn’t affect me that much, but after year six, seven, eight, it wore me down a bit. There were a lot of members of Congress that would call me Tim, every single time.
I think the shadow was always looming to some degree, but it’s important to state that for some time I was comfortable in that shadow because I felt it was my duty to live up to it.
But as I aged and I got closer to turning 30, I began to have real concerns about who was I, independent of that legacy, independent of my last name.
Did I know who I was? And to be honest with you, I really didn’t. That’s when I decided to leave media. It was then-Speaker of the House John Boehner who helped push me to leave and embark on this journey.
In your book, you write about seeing signs from your father throughout your travel journey. What was one of those moments?
After I had started writing the book, I realized that I was missing something. There was a voice in my head that said, “You must go to the Holy Land.” (Russert is Catholic). You can’t have seen the world and have not gone to the Holy Land. So, I went, seeking some form of clarity.
I am at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which is Christ’s Tomb, looking to have a cathartic moment. I have a deeply profound spiritual experience while there, but I’m still feeling a little bit lost. I walk out of that church and I’m trying to figure out what to do and to look for a sign.
It’s nighttime and all the stores are basically closed, but there’s a guy on the street selling a Buffalo Bills yarmulke. I buy it and go to the Western Wall. I won’t give away the end of the book, but it is essentially a monumental moment for me.
This Father’s Day will be 15 years since your dad passed. You write how the 10-year anniversary was particularly difficult and emotional. How has it changed these past few years?
I think one of the things you see in the journey is that I gravitate toward places of comfort — and sports is often a place of comfort. I write in the book about seeing the remnants of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan, and then ending up at a Hiroshima [Toyo] Carp baseball game, because that brings me joy.
I write about going to the World Cup in Russia and seeing a Russian father and son connecting and imagining a moment between my father and me.
On those days that are difficult, you put yourself in positions of joy or places of joy, whether it’s going to that baseball game or remembering all those happy, wonderful times.
That’s what I’ll do on Father’s Day. It’s one of those things where I used to sit in the emotions of, “Oh gosh, he’s gone.” Now I’m much more at a place where I’m so appreciative for the 22 years that I had. And most importantly, the last thing in the world that he would ever want me to do is to be so sad and upset all the time.
I think that’s something that we come to realize after years and years of sitting in grief, is that he would want you to be happy. He would want you to have that sausage, have that beer, cheer on the Nationals, and toast him. And that’s a good day.