The Unimaginable Death of Declan Sullivan

Posted on October 29, 2010


When the Notre Dame football team takes the field Saturday, how heavy will their hearts be? Will they carry the memory of Declan Sullivan with them onto the field? Was Sullivan a part of the football community, or just another face in a crowd of invisible support staff who make the games we watch each weekend possible?

It’s hard to imagine how on Earth the good people of South Bend thought it would turn out when they sent Sullivan fifty feet up a scissor lift to film the Irish’s practice earlier this week, on a day when winds exceeded the recommended maximums for use of such devices by a factor of two to one. It’s hard to imagine the interior conflict of Sullivan, whose stomach must have churned as he performed his duties with trepidation. It’s really hard to imagine that, at this moment, the tapes Sullivan made that day are of any special utility to anyone, that the tapes actually needed to be made badly enough to justify endangering a 20-year-old junior’s life.

As the 50-mile-an-hour gust of wind that brought Sullivan and his perch crashing to Earth began to gather, it’s hard to imagine that the Illinois native thought only of football. It’s hard to imagine that Sullivan cared whether or not the Irish linebackers were correctly filling the weak-side A gap on a short-yardage defensive set. It’s impossible for me to imagine that Sullivan, or anyone else, considered football diagrams as important as personal safety on a day when wind advisories had been issued across northern Indiana.

Yet, that is precisely the moment of crisis this nation has reached when it comes to football. It used to be that American could laugh at the way European fans lived and died (all too often, literally) on the performances of their soccer clubs. America has always been sports-crazed, but there used to be a certain measure of perspective.

Baseball poses no threat to that sense of things. Baseball games are played every day. There is no time for tedious game-planning, no time for storylines that build throughout the week, no time for inevitably stale rehashing of previous action. If your team loses on Friday, it stands an improved chance of winning Saturday, because that is the nature of the beast: Baseball evens out, and its fans can take solace there. Many fans (Red Sox fans, Cubs fans and Phillies fans, especially) sometimes fail to avail themselves of that perspective, but the game is inevitably less melodramatic because it keeps moving.

Football, episodic both on and off the field, is played once a week. As such, players feel entitled to play with a certain lack of restraint. Fans feel entitled to cut loose on game days. Coaches feel entitled to micro-manage their squads and push their charges ever harder for perfection. Media outlets apparently feel entitled to speculate wildly and discuss in painstaking detail every snap and every scandal.

That leaves America unsure of the place where football stops and reality begins. Football zealots at the college and professional levels can watch any of a half-dozen programs every day that give them the latest information and gossip about everything football, and never ever stop to consider that, with three days left until game day and a heap of more tangible things on their plate, they ought to buckle down and shelve their sport fanaticism for a while.

The game America so dearly loves is becoming a drug America cannot live without. It steals productivity; it corrupts. It is not evil, only powerful: The responsibility for the misuse of that power rests with us. It is time to get a grip, America. Football is not worth anyone’s life. Those who play the game for a living face mortal risks every Sunday, but as we saw this week in the Holy Land of football tradition, there are other things at stake.