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John Sullivan: Never look back

Bill Brink | Thursday, November 15, 2007

Considering the publicity that Notre Dame’s all-time worst 1-9 season has received, it seemed odd that the record was not on the tip of John Sullivan’s tongue.

The fifth-year senior center brought up the record when discussing his pride in the team, then hesitated and double-checked the number of losses with Notre Dame director of football media relations Brian Hardin before continuing.

“I’m proud of this team, and one of the main reasons is that we’re 1-9 and the team will never quit,” Sullivan said. “You have to admire a group of guys that go out there and fight every time.”

But that’s who Sullivan is. Records don’t mean much to him, he said.

“I’m focused on one game at a time: the next game,” he said. “I don’t look back at what the record is.”

It is this attitude that helped Sullivan start 43 games, including 31 straight, of his collegiate career. It led the coaches to select him as a team captain. But maybe most importantly, it helped Sullivan guide Notre Dame’s young, inexperienced offensive line.

“Keep focusing on the next game,” Sullivan told his linemates this season. “You don’t look back, no matter what happened the previous week.”

Finding his home

Sullivan filled his life with sports. In addition to football, Sullivan played water polo and rugby at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn. He had a 138-6 record as a heavyweight wrestler and won the state championship in his sophomore, junior and senior years. He also placed seventh and earned All-America honors at the 2003 national wrestling championships.

Wrestling, he said, contained some skills analogous to football.

“Having good feet is important in both sports, balance, intensity [as well],” Sullivan said. “The training requirements for wrestling forced you to suffer a lot, so it builds mental toughness.”

Sullivan excelled, however, in football. A prep school All-American and Gatorade Player of the Year, Sullivan started at center in his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. He also played nose guard on defense, where he had 20 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks in 2002. That year, Sullivan’s senior season, Greenwich went 12-1-1 and reached the Connecticut Class LL title game. Sullivan said he got many of the characteristics he values in himself from his high school coaches.

“They taught me a lot about the game,” Sullivan said. “They taught me even more importantly about how you have to care about your teammates, you have to care about the game and you have to play with a passion. I learned that from them.”

Sullivan considered Miami, Michigan, North Carolina and Boston College in addition to Notre Dame and was the No. 3 center of his class, according to rivals.com. What convinced him to join the Irish, he said, was a self-imposed conundrum that stumped him.

“I asked the question, ‘How could I say no to Notre Dame?’ And ultimately I couldn’t answer that question, therefore I had to come,” Sullivan said. “It’s a great mix of academics and athletics, a great tradition, a rich, storied program, and I wanted to be a part of that for the rest of my life.”

Not done yet

Once at Notre Dame, Sullivan had the chance to play with a veteran group of lineman that included Bob Morton, Dan Santucci and Ryan Harris.

“We had great chemistry. We could rely on each other a lot,” Sullivan said. “We know how each guy on that line played and what to expect from him. That was a great group, and I was proud to be a part of it.”

During his sophomore season, Sullivan started all 12 games at center. He started eight as a junior and all 13 games in 2006.

Sullivan could have entered the NFL draft along with the rest of his linemates, but instead chose to return for a fifth year.

“I wasn’t done here at Notre Dame. I wasn’t ready to leave the school,” Sullivan said. “I hadn’t graduated yet. I thought that my future could wait another year. I think I’ve become a much better football player.”

Sullivan and sophomore tackle Sam Young suddenly became the only linemen with any meaningful game experience.

During practice on Aug. 23, head coach Charlie Weis announced in front of the team and media that Sullivan would become the team’s fifth captain. Sullivan was grateful for the honor, but said it didn’t alter his approach to the game.

“I didn’t feel my role changed that much as I was trying to be a leader anyway, but I was very appreciative that they saw me in that light,” Sullivan said. “Being a captain, you feel like you have to do the right thing all the time. That’s really one of your goals anyway, but it just puts a little more emphasis on the fact that the younger guys look up to you.”

Offensive line coach John Latina said Sullivan sets an example for the younger linemen, demonstrating how to focus and improve in the face of criticism.

“Basically, he’s told them and showed them how to go out and work every day no matter what people say, no matter what people talk about, to keep focused on the task at hand,” Latina said. “Keep blinders on in terms of, there’s only one way to get better, and that’s to go out there and work.”

Sullivan’s methods of instruction and motivation are not the tamest, Latina said.

“He’s a fiery guy. You expect that kind of demeanor about him,” Latina said. “He is what he is. And I respect him and I admire him and I think he’s an outstanding player.”

That personality comes with leading, Sullivan said.

“As a fifth-year guy, I’m looked upon to be a leader for this team,” Sullivan said. “Being a leader isn’t just a vocal thing. You have to lead by example, with your actions. That’s why I’m trying to play as hard as I can.”

Sullivan said staying for a fifth year will benefit his future. As for life after football, he said he has no idea what’s in store. He’s once again focusing on the task at hand.

With a slight grin on his face, he said, “Hopefully football won’t end anytime soon.”