April 21, 2004
by Katie Stuhldreher
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – In the 21 years of experience that Tyrone Willingham has had with college football, he has only seen two freshman centers play with the first team during the regular season. Up until this past season, that is, when that count rose to three as John Sullivan proved himself on the practice field. Although Sullivan did not see any game-time during his rookie year, he is working harder than ever in spring training and looks to make a big impact with the relatively young Irish offensive line in the fall.
Sullivan’s talent and passion for football emerged amid a background of varied and impressive athletic excellence in his youth. Sullivan picked up a variety of activities, following after his two brothers Rick and Sam, who earned All-America honors in rugby and water polo, respectively.
During his grade school and high school days, Sullivan could be found in a baseball dugout, swimming pool, wrestling arena, rugby pitch, or even on a dance floor. Although Sullivan could easily have competed at the college level in any of these activities, he chose to make his home on the football field.
During his career at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn., playing at the same school that graduated former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, Sullivan earned Parade and SuperPrep All-American honors as well as Gatorade Player of the Year laurels in Connecticut, with 20 tackles for loss and 12 sacks as a senior.
“In high school, football became my number one choice because I found that I could answer a lot of questions about myself on the football field,” Sullivan commented
When Sullivan wasn’t out playing one sport or another as he was growing up, he was at home watching Notre Dame Football on television.
“A large part of my family is Irish Catholic and they are huge Notre Dame fans,” Sullivan reflected. “When the Irish came to recruit me, I thought, ‘How do you say no to Notre Dame?’ You don’t. So I came here to become part of the tradition.”
Sullivan commented that the success of Coach Willingham’s sensational first season at Notre Dame, the dedicated support from Irish fans, and sense of tradition at Notre Dame heavily influenced his decision to come to the University. Now that he has been on campus for a year, he feels that all his expectations about Notre Dame have been fulfilled.
“There is so much good stuff about being at Notre Dame: my coaches, teammates, fans,” Sullivan added. “The first time running out onto the field is amazing. I’d say my expectations have pretty much been fulfilled.”
Due to frustrating losses and lack of playing time, however, Sullivan’s expectations for his first season at Notre Dame did not measure up as well as his expectations for the school in general.
“Last season was frustrating but we expect to turn things around this year,” Sullivan stated. “Our goal is to win a national championship. We are getting more and more comfortable with each other and we are smarter on the field now than we were last season. Our first big game against Michigan will prove whether we can put together all that we’ve learned.”
Sullivan commented that he is personally focusing mainly on improving his technique and strength this spring in order to compete for a starting position on the offensive line next season.
“I just want to be able to go out there and do my best to help us win games,” he noted. “When I’m out on the field, I play really hard and communicate with the other guys on the line. I try to help out some of them who do not understand the plays as well as I do and just to be there for my teammates.”
Sullivan also added that his teammates last season, especially fifth-year seniors such as offensive tackle Jim Molinaro, have been a tremendous help in his transition to the college level. He commented that everyone on the line had to help fill in gaps last year after four offensive linemen, including All-America center Jeff Faine, were drafted into the NFL.
“I think everyone stepped up and did a good job on the line last season. It’s a difficult job and I hope to help out with that next season,” Sullivan added.
And if spring training so far is any indication, Sullivan will be making an impact for the Irish offense sooner rather than later.
“I think he does stick out, but his position is amazingly complicated because it is that position of leadership that he communicates everything to all the other linemen,” Willingham said. “What’s important about that is it usually requires a great deal of experience.”
Now with one season of learning and practicing under his belt, Sullivan is determined to prove that he has the necessary leadership and experience to step up for the Irish. This determination will fuel the young line next season and help the Irish turn their record around.
— ND —