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Forgiveness, not anger, heals Sullivan family following Notre Dame tragedy

A photo of Declan - left - with his brother and sister. (Daily Herald)
When it came time for Barry Sullivan’s son to decide where he’d go to college a few years ago it really wasn’t much of a choice.  As a graduate of Carmel Catholic High School in the northwest suburban Mundelein, academics was important -- but so was something else.

“Notre Dame football is something he’d been following since he was a young kid. In fact, I can remember, this was probably when he was junior high or early high school, just starting to think about someday he would go to college. And we would talk about different schools,” said Declan’s father, Barry Sullivan. “He would say, ‘Dad I can’t go there. They play Notre Dame.”

So in 2008 Declan Sullivan arrived at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. His mother urged him to major in business but he also found time to take film classes.

Barry Sullivan says it was that passion that got Declan closer to his favorite football team.

“He was actually recommended to it by one of his film teachers. They knew of his interest. They said, well, there’s an opportunity to work with the football team. It’s a great job if you want to be behind the camera and he jumped on it,” Barry Sullivan said.

Declan went on to film the football squad from his freshman through his junior year. But it all came to an abrupt end on an unusually windy day in South Bend on October 27, 2010.

“I remember remarking to myself how scary it was,” said Alex Bowman of South Bend, who was a sophomore at Notre Dame at the time.

Bowman, a political science major, was among the few students on campus during the holiday break.

“The wind was whipping around. Trees were moving back and forth. I was nervous,” Bowman said.

So was Declan Sullivan.

That afternoon he was more than 50 feet off the ground on what’s called a scissor lift preparing to tape practice.

It was so windy, he even tweeted about how scared he was.

The suddenly, a gust of wind toppled the lift, and Declan fell to his death.

Bowman didn’t see it happen, but was nearby on campus.

“It’s unthinkable. It’s really beyond comprehension to think that something so tragic could happen and let alone happen just a few feet away. It was unimaginably sad,” Bowman said. “That had an impact on every individual in the community.”

Like everyone else, Bowman had questions about how this could happen.

“A 50 foot scissor lift, if you’ve been out to the practice fields, the only thing taller than that are the lights,” Bowman said. “With the winds like that, it’s hard for me to think there isn’t someone who said, ‘You know, maybe we should get him down.’”

Declan’s death happened on then new head coach Brian Kelly’s watch. The media criticized Kelly and Notre Dame’s administration. Some sports columnists called for Kelly’s firing.
The State of Indiana, meanwhile, opened an investigation.

“There was a lot of concern for how it was handled. How could you possible let a student in that situation,” said Teagan Lawson, a Notre Dame grad student who too wondered about N-Notre Dame’s actions on that day.

Lawson was among the few remaining Notre Dame students on campus during the holiday break. She and a few other current or former students talked about that day two years ago, one of the most tragic in recent Notre Dame history.

“Honestly, I’m not sure how I would react. It would be devastating for sure. I don’t think you could have anything but anger,” Lawson said.

Anger is something Declan’s father, Barry Sullivan, also experienced but it wasn’t toward anyone in particular at Notre Dame, and certainly not Coach Brian Kelly.

“You ask, “Why did this happen? Why did this happen to us?’ There is a sense of anger there but to direct that anger toward the individuals, especially when we can see how they were suffering; it just seemed cruel to do that to somebody who is already suffering that way,” Sullivan said.
Indiana’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Notre Dame $42,000 for safety violations following an investigation after Declan’s death.

In an agreement with the State of Indiana, Notre Dame said it would set up a nationwide safety campaign for aerial lifts.

More than two years after that tragic day, Notre Dame is getting ready for its biggest game in nearly 25 years.

Coach Brian Kelly says the team hasn’t forgotten about Declan, a former member of their football family.

“Every day that we walk out to the field there is a memorial that we pass with Declan’s name on it,” Kelly told WBEZ. “So he’s part of this journey that we’ve been on the last three years. You can’t help but to feel that he’s part of it.”

And Barry Sullivan and his family will be a part of it in Miami too when the Irish take the field. Sullivan says it will be bittersweet to be there without Declan cheering on the team, especially since so many of his friends will be playing in the championship.

“I’m sure he would be very exciting seeing the team succeeding, especially since he knew some of the players. I’m sure he would be very excited about Manti Te’o being a runner up for the Heisman because again, it’s somebody that he knew,” he said.

Barry Sullivan says he’s happy to know that Declan’s memory will live on through his foundation, the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund, dedicated to providing funding to Horizons for Youth, a not-for-profit Chicago group that helps children in K to 12 with educational assistance.

Horizons for Youth has been around for more than 20 years and is based on Chicago’s West Loop.

Because of a tremendously successful fundraiser last spring, the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund raised $600,000, enough for 40 more children to use the servies of Horizons for Youth. The group has been nicknamed “Declan’s 40.”

“My degrees are in engineering. My wife is a physician. We couldn’t have gotten to where we are without education and a lot of it. And, we were doing the same for our children,” Barry Sullivan said. “That’s why Declan was at Notre Dame. Devoting the fund to educational causes was something there at the start.”
But Barry Sullivan knows that some may still not want to let Notre Dame off the hook in holding the school responsible for Declan’s death.

“We don’t look at it that way. Of all people, if anybody should have those feelings it would be Declan’s family,” Sullivan said. “So, if we are able to understand and if you want to use the word forgive, if we are able to do that, you should too.”

The Sullivans’ passion for Notre Dame hasn’t diminished with Declan’s passing.

Barry Sullivan’s daughter, Wyn, is set to graduate from Notre Dame in the spring, while his youngest son, Mac, will be attending college soon.

His first choice: Notre Dame.

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