After a loss, a family learns to widen its embrace
MIAMI – Declan Sullivan would have loved this weekend. For all the doubts his family has confronted in the 27 months since the death of their first-born son, his father is certain about that.
“Like a lot of the kids in our neighborhood, Declan grew up a Notre Dame fan,” Barry Sullivan said. “He heard the stories in our house, we took him to games, it was always a part of his experience and in a way, I guess, his identity. That’s what made him so determined to go there.
“But as he got a little older, he began to appreciate what made it special, beyond just the football. ... Then he got into business school there and he’d call home, talking about the value of Notre Dame degree.
“And what I remember now, thinking about back then,” he added, his voice trailing off, “was how much he’d grown up.”
Declan Sullivan, named after an Irish saint, never got to finish that journey. He was killed in an accident Oct. 27, 2010 – a fall off a 40-foot lift, from atop which he was taping a Notre Dame practice. He was 20.
What placed him there on a day when wind gusts pushed past 50 mph was the rambunctious spirit he displayed even as a kid, and the dream of getting himself on the football fields at South Bend one day. His family’s presence at Monday’s national championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama is a way of remembering that spirit, just as they honored his memory by creating a memorial fund – partnering with the Horizons for Youth organization – to help other youngsters set off in whatever directions they chose.
“That was the way Declan was,” Barry Sullivan recalled. “When he got something into his head, it was tough to shake.”
His father took it as a sign of his son’s growing maturity when Declan altered his plan to get on the field, telling Barry he planned to trade in his shoulder pads and the football team for a trumpet and the jazz band in his senior year of high school. But his plan to make it into the marching band didn’t pan out, either. Then one of his professors at Notre Dame mentioned there might be a chance to work as a videographer for the football team, and all those days Declan spent lugging his family’s video camera around, filming everything, made it seem a comfortable fit.
When his sister, Gwyneth, followed him to Notre Dame, the Sullivans brought along their third child, Macartan, on road trips from their home in suburban Chicago, and the games became family weekends.
“He’d be assigned to film different aspects of the games, but we’d always all meet up in the same spot, on the walk between the practice fields and athletic department building where he had to turn in his cameras. When we go back there now,” Barry Sullivan recalled, “it’s still the place we meet afterward.”
A memorial plaque marks the spot now, barely two dozen steps from where Sullivan fell to his death.
“Sadness, I guess is what I remember most about that time,” Notre Dame lineman Mike Golic Jr., said. “Declan’s a guy we all miss a lot and it’s hard to imagine what they went through. I have all the respect in the world for his family, for the way they carried themselves and how they’ve handled it since.”
In the immediate aftermath, there were fingers pointed, calls for accountability and speculation about lawsuits. The Sullivans anguished over mistakes made, knew only too well his death could have been prevented. Yet they remained quiet throughout.
“We heard it, all of it, the speculation, the liability claims, but that was not our first impulse and frankly, we never found reason to think any differently,” Barry Sullivan said. “We kept quiet first out of a respect for privacy and also because an investigation was going on.
“But we never felt the need to pursue any legal action. We never felt like we had to teach anybody a lesson. ... At every juncture, they treated us with kindness and concern, sympathy and obviously, they accepted responsibility for what had happened. We had great sorrow of our own to deal with, but it was plain that they were suffering, too. Maybe if we’d been confronted with a cold, unfeeling institution, we would have felt different.
“But Alison (Drumm, his wife) and I looked at each other and we just kind of realized,” he concluded. “ ‘If we don’t pursue this, nobody else can, either.’ ”
The state of Indiana and university conducted investigations. Notre Dame paid a $42,000 fine to the state for safety violations.
A moment of silence was observed before the next game against Tulsa, when the Irish came out with shamrock decals with Sullivan’s initial on their helmets. The gestures that meant the most to the Sullivans were the private conversations with the Rev. Paul Doyle and university president, the Rev. John Jenkins, whose candid admission in an email sent to the Notre Dame community concluded, “Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe.”
Some people are dismayed to this day that was enough for the Sullivans. Yet they never looked back, determined only how they could go forward. They wondered about whether they could return to South Bend and find even traces of the joy the place held for them once.
“We had questions, ‘Would the place seem as special as it did before? Would there always be a cloud over it?’” Barry Sullivan recalled.
“Then, the day after funeral, our daughter took the lead. She had classes the next day and told us, ‘That’s where I want to be.’ And the first few times, there was that sense of sorrow. But the memorial helped, the warmth showed by the people who embraced us helped.”