By Lee Davis
Current events in our nation and around the world make some people wonder if there are any heroes remaining.
Maybe they don’t know where to look. The alumni rolls of John Carroll Catholic might be a good place to start.
One of its heroes is Pat Sullivan, class of 1968.
Sullivan was saluted Oct. 7 at the halftime of John Carroll’s 40-7 win over Springville, as the Cavaliers’ home field was named in his honor. From now on, the Cavs will play at Pat Sullivan Field.
As any young football fan in Alabama knows, Sullivan starred at John Carroll before undertaking a legendary career as a quarterback at Auburn University, which climaxed with him being awarded the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player in 1971.
He later went on to play for the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins. After retirement from the NFL, Sullivan worked as an assistant coach at Auburn and at UAB and served as head coach at TCU and Samford University.
Although John Carroll moved off its original Southside campus nearly 30 years ago, Sullivan felt like he was home again when he returned to his high school alma mater.
“That was a special night,” he recalled last week. “Getting to see so many of my former teammates, coaches and classmates meant more than anything. I hadn’t seen some of them in 40 years. Some of my former teammates at Auburn came, too. It all brought back a lot of wonderful memories.”
If his big night at John Carroll triggered fond memories for Sullivan, the mere utterance of his name brings back great memories to a generation of college football fans in Alabama. Sullivan was arguably one of the most exciting players in Southeastern Conference history, setting an NCAA record for touchdown responsibility that stood for years. But more than setting any records or even for winning the Heisman Trophy, Sullivan was most admired for the classy way he represented Auburn and the state during his playing days and beyond.
“It was all about my teammates and all the others that helped me throughout my life and football career,” Sullivan said. “I always wanted to make sure that other people got credit for anything that I was able to achieve. I owe everything to them.”
For all his success at Auburn and his time in the NFL, Sullivan said the years he spent as a Cavalier were among the greatest of all.
“When I grew up there wasn’t a lot of television exposure for college football,” he said. “So our football heroes were the guys we saw play on Friday night. Then when we had the opportunity to play high school ball, we had kids looking up to us, and that was a great experience.”
Although John Carroll had only about 23 players on its roster in those days, the team enjoyed widespread support from the student body and community.
“Even the student body members who didn’t actually play football were very involved and were considered part of the team,” Sullivan recalled. “And our stadium on Montclair Road was packed for every game.”
Sullivan’s fondest memory of high school football was simple – just playing the game.
“Back then, there wasn’t so much pressure,” he said. “We really enjoyed just getting to play. We had the desire to compete, and John Carroll was where we learned how to do it.”
As one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks, Sullivan was heavily recruited by colleges across the nation. Recruiting was much lower key than it is today. There were no rating services or recruiting “experts,” and the NCAA had far fewer rules governing the process.
“It was a simpler time,” Sullivan said. “During my recruiting, I had something like standing dates. On one night, an Alabama coach took me to dinner. On another night, an Auburn coach would take me to dinner. On another night a coach from Georgia or Tennessee or Notre Dame would take me to eat. My parents wouldn’t let me go out on Thursday night, and on Friday night we played the (John Carroll) game. On Saturday, I was making an on-campus visit. And that filled the week.”
When Sullivan was treated to dinner by the coaches, he usually ordered the same thing: steak.
“My parents were working and saving so they could afford to send their kids to John Carroll,” he said. “The only time I got steak at home was on my birthday. So when the coaches took me out, I knew what I wanted.”
While young Pat Sullivan got his steaks, everyone else got so much more: a leader, a winner on the field and off, a role model and a community icon. Sullivan may have played at John Carroll and Auburn, but he belongs to us all.