Weather Updates

A year after Declan Sullivan tragedy, Notre Dame still too consumed by football

Declan Sullivan died when he was videotaping Notre Dame football team from hydraulic lift during windstorm Oct. 27 2010.

Declan Sullivan died when he was videotaping the Notre Dame football team from a hydraulic lift during a windstorm on Oct. 27, 2010. | AP

storyidforme: 20340903
tmspicid: 7599372
fileheaderid: 3450785

Updated: November 28, 2011 10:20AM

The “F” in football is capitalized on the Declan Sullivan memorial outside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, which doubles as Notre Dame’s football headquarters. It served as an unintentional reminder of the mentality that resulted in the student’s death when the lift holding him while he filmed practice toppled in high winds a year ago.

The memorial reads: “Declan Sullivan was a student videographer who was filming a Notre Dame Football (sic) practice from an aerial lift when it fell near this spot on Oct. 27, 2010.”

Notre Dame is a proper noun. The “N” and “D” should be upper case. The capitalized “F” is another sign of the self-importance that had Sullivan 50 feet up in the air filming, not a game but a practice on a day when wind gusts exceeded 50 mph.

“Blame is not a word that we feel is appropriate,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said when asked if he second-guesses the decision to put Sullivan in the air that day. “We never thought in those terms. We thought in terms of loss and making sure something like this never happens again.”

If Kelly doesn’t have moments of regret or times late at night when he stares at the ceiling second-guessing himself, he’s not human. If he’s so obsessed with the Irish not losing to Navy for the fourth time in five years on Saturday to reflect on a senseless loss of life, he’s missing the only positive that can come from a tragedy that should have and could have been prevented.

It’s just football, people. It’s important, but it’s not life and death even if sometimes it feels that way.

Fans invest in Notre Dame football perhaps more than any other program in the country. No other universities or mascots plumb the depths of ethnicity and religion like the Irish. Wins and losses become all-important. Notre Dame Stadium is the world’s biggest ATM machine. Millions of dollars pour onto campus during every football weekend. It’s easy for those associated with Notre Dame to lose perspective. It’s easy to forget it’s a game when every waking moment is consumed with ensuring college kids in plastic armor keep drawing network ratings.

But it doesn’t change the fact that Declan Sullivan should’ve never been up in the air on a day when even he told us through his tweets that he felt unsafe.

“We talked about it yesterday,” Kelly said when asked how he and the team planned to remember Sullivan. “We haven’t decided exactly what the format is gonna be. Unfortunately, we have a lot on our plate this week with a memorial mass for Xavier Murphy, as well.

“But we are going to do something as a team, as well. As you know, on Saturday the memorial was dedicated right out here in front of the Gug. So we’ve intimated to our team that that might be the appropriate place for us to recognize the year that has passed since that tragic event.”

A lot on their plate? Xavier Murphy was a former team manager. He was an intern with the football program. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died a month later. Players will wear stickers on their helmets for the rest of the season in his honor.

To be fair to Kelly, I don’t envy anyone whose every word is dissected, but he made it sound as if the deaths were a game-week inconvenience. He thanked the media member who asked the next question about the upcoming opponent presumably because that’s what’s really important. It continues a dissatisfying trend. Notre Dame has set up a scholarship fund in Sullivan’s honor and has launched an aerial-lift safety campaign, which is admirable. But from the beginning, with the exception of a heartfelt we-failed-to-keep-him-safe statement from Notre Dame president the Rev. John Jenkins, the university’s public response has seemed cold, corporate and part of a legal defense.

“Obviously, it’s a tragedy to lose a young man like that,” Notre Dame center Braxston Cave said. “It’s definitely a day we’ll never forget. But, more important, it’s the person that we’ll never forget and what he meant to all of us here.”

This season perhaps more than any other during his 21-year head-coaching career Kelly has learned winning college football games is difficult. If nothing else, the anniversary of Sullivan’s death should remind him that keeping college football in perspective is even harder.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.