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Fighting Irish players wore D.S. decals in memory of Sullivan Photo by: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Tragic death of Declan Sullivan at Notre Dame creates a surprising legacy

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Fighting Irish players wore D.S. decals in memory of Sullivan Photo by: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Irish-American Declan Sullivan died tragically and suddenly while he was at a Notre Dame football practice which he was filming. He was atop a 40-foot aerial lift that collapsed in strong and unexpected gusts of wind.

There were media calls for Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, who attended practice the day Sullivan died, to be fired, and for Coach Brian Kelly, who decided to practice outdoors that day, to resign.

Instead Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins took full responsibility for the accident, saying the school had failed to keep Declan safe. His acceptance of responsibility went down well with the family, as The New York Times reported.

Now, while the Sullivans acknowledge that their son’s death was preventable, they continue to cheer on the Fighting Irish and choose to celebrate Declan’s life through a foundation in his name, ‘Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund,’ which partnered with a Chicago charity that helps underprivileged children get a good education.

Declan’s sister Wyn attends school at Notre Dame now still, and younger brother Mac just submitted an application. The Sullivans will even be in attendance at the BCS championship game in Miami when the Fighting Irish face off with Alabama. 

Declan’s family remembers him fondly as warm and adventurous. They named him Declan, after an Irish saint, and sometimes called him Dec. When he was a boy, they made certain to keep an eye on him, so adventurous was his spirit.

“Notre Dame fandom was a natural extension of their Roman Catholicism,” writes Greg Bishop who spoke with the family for the New York Times.

Declan’s parents attended Catholic school and married in Chicago at Old Saint Patrick’s Church, where their three children were baptized.

When it came time to apply to colleges, Declan Sullivan crossed off the universities that played the Fighting Irish regularly. He wrote his application essay for Notre Dame about how he played the trumpet and how he dreamed of walking on the field at Notre Dame Stadium and how he recognized the instrument as his most realistic route.

Ultimately, Sullivan was waitlisted at Notre Dame, and chose acceptance to Wisconsin in the meantime. However, Notre Dame soon came calling. 

While he left his trumpet at home, Sullivan was soon given the opportunity to be on the Notre Dame field as a videographer with the football team, an opportunity put together by one of his film professors.

Sullivan spoke little to his parents of what went on at the field in accordance with team rules. He spoke of the job’s demands and the discipline it required, which they considered a good thing.

Declan more often focused on the environment of game days while filming. The university encouraged him to tape the cheerleaders, the leprechaun mascot, the golden helmets. After games, the family met at the practice facility, where Sullivan dropped off his equipment.

“We did see him up on the lift sometimes,” Barry Sullivan said. “The practice fields were behind a fence, but you could see him up there. He said it was sturdy, and he seemed comfortable. He was always fearless."

On the day where Sullivan died, he Tweeted prophetically from atop the lift where he was filming, “This is terrifying,” and “I guess I’ve lived long enough.” Soon after, a sudden gale force burst of wind knocked over the tower.

Investigations were launched into the accident. The Fighting Irish donned “D.S.” stickers on their helmets, and took a moment of silence at their next game to remember Sullivan.

Ultimately, the accident was narrowed down to four reasons: a sudden and extraordinary burst of wind; staff members’ lack of knowledge in regard to on-field wind speeds; the type of lift involved being more susceptible to tipping; and the height of the lift when the accident occurred.

“We’re just not those kind of people,” said Barry Sullivan about choosing not to sue Notre Dame. “That was the visceral, gut reaction. I want to stop anyone who suggests otherwise. Our response to the university didn’t have a dollar sign attached to it. That’s not part of this at all.”

When Barry Sullivan was asked if he has forgiven the circumstances surrounding the unfortunate event, he replies, “I resist that because to forgive means you’ve assigned blame. And not to say this could not have been prevented, but I don’t feel anybody knowingly acted recklessly and caused the accident. Or that anybody in the football program said, ‘We are willing to risk lives for the sake of Notre Dame football.’

“I know that. I’m closer to it than anybody. I wish everyone would take my word for it.”

Instead, the Sullivans started the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund, its slogan: “Honor One Life. Impact Hundreds.” Barry Sullivan collaborated with a lawyer friend in partnering the foundation with a charity. The friend suggested, Horizons for Youth, an organization that counsels and tutors disadvantaged children in Chicago. The organization has graduated all but one student in 22 years and sent 80 percent to college.

Declan’s sister emailed Horizons to set up a meeting. The family found out that Horizons rented its space from Old Saint Patrick’s, of all places, and that several of its founders and its executive director graduated from Notre Dame.

The unsolicited donations to the family and money from friends and acquaintances went into the fund, which they gifted to Horizons, which added 40 children to its fold and doubled its fund-raising and tutoring efforts. They held a joint fundraiser that raised $600,000.

“I feel pretty good about it,” Barry Sullivan said later, inside the Horizons offices, near a poster of all the children in Declan’s 40, which organizers hope will become Declan’s 80, then Declan’s 120 and on and on. “And it’s O.K. to feel good about it.”

For Father Jenkins, Notre Dame University’s president, Sullivan’s death, and his family’s response to it, proved no less than transformative. He says they “took loss and grief and transformed it into something else, something generous and worthwhile.”

“To have them at the national championship game, after the dark day of Sullivan’s death, to see their generosity and healing, it will touch so many people.”

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