In Next Scene: A Dark Cloud Lifts
Published: December 29, 2012

CHICAGO — Before he died, Declan Sullivan wrote screenplays. He made short films, played trumpet, loved music and movies, studied business and, in his remaining free time at Notre Dame, videotaped football practice for the Fighting Irish.

The screenplays seemed to tie it all together, to provide a creative outlet, a space for Sullivan’s adventures. He called one “Clouds.” It ends with the protagonist, a college student known simply as Guy, chasing a cloud, into a stadium, to the top of the bleachers. A hand emerges. Guy reaches for it.

“When the light subsides, the crowd sees a limp Guy free-falling,” the script reads. “The crowd shrieks as he falls. A sickening thud is heard as he hits the ground, and the crowd goes silent.”

The script then cuts to a funeral, to women crying and men with blank faces and a priest. “We may never know what exactly was going through his mind during those last few moments,” the priest says in the script. “But let us pray that during those moments this young man finally found peace.”

Sullivan died on Oct. 27, 2010. He was 20, a junior in college. He died at a Notre Dame football practice, atop a 40-foot aerial lift that collapsed when winds gusted up to 53 miles an hour. A crowd watched the fall, heard the thud, went silent. At the funeral, women cried and men stared blankly and the assembled prayed that in those final seconds Sullivan found peace.

Immediately, Sullivan’s death ballooned into a national story, the focus lingering on Notre Dame and its football program, which will face Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series title game on Jan. 7. The initial reaction: The athletic director was at practice that day and the new coach chose to conduct it outside, heads must roll and the Sullivan family was certain to pocket millions.

Sullivan was largely forgotten in this coverage, his story the detritus of a tragedy teased through the modern news grind. The reaction was playing out exactly as expected until the Sullivans made their feelings known in public.

They did not have the moral outrage that others mustered for them. They acknowledged that Notre Dame had made mistakes, that his death could and should have been prevented. Yet the Sullivans cheered, for Notre Dame and for its football team, even louder than before. Their daughter, Gwyneth or Wyn, as she is called, continued to attend college there. Their other son, Macartan, known as Mac, recently submitted his application.

The family will attend the national championship game in Miami, and it will do so in Sullivan’s memory, for the same reasons the family created a memorial fund and partnered with a local charity: because this is how the Sullivans choose to grieve, how they want their son to be remembered.

“I remember when my wife was pregnant, and I had nine months to get used to this idea,” said Barry Sullivan, his father, over lunch here this month. “Then your first child is born, and you’re not an expectant father, you’re a father. Everything changes. You know it’s going to happen. But until you experience
it. ... ”

His voice trailed off.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

A Boy’s Life

The Sullivans chose a distinctive name for the oldest of their three children. 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.

On summer trips to Beaver Island, near the northern end of Lake Michigan, Declan Sullivan sprinted to the front of the group on nature walks, the first to grab a frog or hold a snake. Fearless since birth, he somersaulted from his crib and once fractured his arm. Afterward, he carried on and got ready for bed before his mother, Alison Drumm, a doctor, noticed the arm was broken.

He loved cameras. He inherited the family’s video camera and carried it wherever he went. He used it for science projects and home movies. He watched various films as well, some over and over, like “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” He could be an instigator, too, the kind of child who took innocent jokes too far.

On one occasion, a neighbor called to report seeing Sullivan on the roof, cool as could be, admiring the view, same as he did atop the scissor lift on all those days at football practice. He did that at Notre Dame, a hallowed place for the Sullivan family.

Notre Dame fandom was a natural extension of their Roman Catholicism. His parents attended Catholic school and married in Chicago at Old Saint Patrick’s Church, where their three children were baptized. As Sullivan narrowed down his list of colleges, he 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.

Sullivan landed on Notre Dame’s waiting list and chose Wisconsin in the interim. He even told his mother, “I’m a Badger,” when the call came with Notre Dame’s acceptance. Eventually, he relented, and when he left for school, he left behind the trumpet.

He landed in Fisher Hall, with his cheesy, wide grin and mop of sandy brown hair, and began studying business and dabbling in film classes. He was the opposite of Guy, his protagonist in “Clouds,” who was a student mired in depression, confined to a couch. The search — for answers, for meaning, for what came next — is what they shared.

“Declan was the most outgoing, zany, crazy unique guy I ever met,” said his college roommate, Chris Wynkoop. “He had no problem putting himself out there. He had no problem with the awkwardness in certain situations. Most times, he embraced it.”

Wynkoop and Sullivan gave a party in their dormitory room, a small open double with old carpet. After weeks of deep thought, Sullivan settled on a “What Would You Do for Money?” theme. He collected Monopoly cash and spent the next month compiling the perfect play list, often until 3 a.m., everything from techno to oldies.

That was Sullivan, always full throttle into the next pursuit. He took the same approach to screenplays, writing in lieu of studying, working well into the night. In their last conversation, on a beer run, Sullivan told Wynkoop he wanted a steady girlfriend, wanted to continue the workout regimen he had started.

“It seemed like he was starting to get the answers to what he had been looking for,” Wynkoop said.

One of his film professors helped Sullivan get a job as a videographer with the football team. The job, which combined his interests in film and football, meant Sullivan would step onto the field. He told his parents little of what went on there, in accordance with team rules. He spoke of the job’s demands and the discipline it required, which they considered a good thing.

On game day, Sullivan filmed more of the environment around the game. 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.

“Like he was back up on the roof.”

A University’s Response

As the wind swirled and the lift shook on that October day two years ago, Sullivan again wrote words that would later appear prophetic. They would prove to be his last.

“This is terrifying,” he posted on his Twitter account.

“I guess I’ve lived long enough.”

Notre Dame’s investigation report recalled sunny but breezy weather 10 minutes before practice started at 3:45 p.m., a stark contrast to the storm that swept through the day before. The head of the video department checked the weather and did not object to practicing outside. Sullivan, though, saw a different report, with a wind warning that gusts could reach 60 miles an hour.

“A sudden, strong burst of wind” swept in at 4:54 p.m., according to the investigation. It lifted a tripod off the ground and moved a heavy metal box and scattered debris onto the field, including a bag with 15 to 20 footballs. The defensive coordinator Bob Diaco told investigators this gust was “of hurricane significance.”

The lift fell. The ambulance arrived. The team prayed.

The phone rang at the Sullivan household in suburban Illinois. His father answered. His mother sat near him. The vice president of student affairs at Notre Dame was on the other line.

The Sullivans went to South Bend, Ind., to be with their daughter, Wyn. They knew few details, beyond that Sullivan had died in an accident at practice. The day before the accident, Barry Sullivan had flown into Chicago on a plane that almost could not land because of excessive wind, but he did not initially make the connection to how his son died. The day of his son’s death, the family went to the practice field. When they saw the scissor lift on the ground, it all made sense.

Notre Dame held a memorial service the next night. The Sullivans stayed to attend the service. There were stories and candles and a crowd full of emotions. The next weekend, Notre Dame held a moment of silence before its game against Tulsa. The Fighting Irish wore shamrock decals on their helmets with Sullivan’s initials, D. S.

Coach Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick, the athletic director, answered question after question. The state and the university began investigations. Before either one concluded, the university’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, composed an e-mail to the larger Notre Dame family in which he wrote, “Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe.”

In a recent telephone interview, Father Jenkins said he felt it necessary to respond as a priest, with full candor, not as an administrator worried about a lawsuit. It helped that he trusted the Sullivans and shared their sadness. Their response, he said, inspired him and “helped us at Notre Dame with our healing.”

The news media across the country expressed their cynicism. They wrote that Swarbrick, who attended practice the day Sullivan died, should be fired; that Kelly, who decided to practice outdoors that day, should resign.

The university’s investigation included more than 50 interviews with bystanders and experts and produced a report of more than 100 pages. Ultimately, it cited four main reasons for the crash: 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.

Few seemed to disagree that three of those factors fell under Notre Dame’s control, that it should have been more aware, more educated, more safe.

Wynkoop read every word of the report. He found it thorough but said it “was a little reluctant to assign blame to any particular entity.”

“It kind of assigned blame to no one and everyone at the same time,” he said.

Still, his overall view fell in line with the Sullivans and with his friends at Notre Dame.

“For the most part, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s quote-unquote to blame,” he said. “What matters is my brother isn’t here.”

If the university’s reaction did not appease its critics, it pleased the Sullivans, although Barry Sullivan insisted repeatedly that it bore no impact on the way the family handled things. The family, he said, did not want to impede the investigations with a lawsuit. Never even considered it.

“We’re just not those kind of people,” he said. “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.”

A Family’s Choice

Barry Sullivan is an engineer, a man of order, a sequential thinker prone to reasonable discourse. Nobody ever told him he should be angry. Not to his face, anyway. A few told him they were angry, at Kelly and Swarbrick and Notre Dame, at all of those they deemed responsible and the free pass they seemingly received.

The worst of what he read was on the Internet: writers who spoke for his family having never met them, bloggers certain a settlement was involved.

“I understand why they’re angry,” Barry Sullivan said. “Fine, be angry, get over it.”

He is not angry. The question Sullivan is asked often is whether he forgave the university and the principals involved. The answer is yes with a caveat.

“I resist that because to forgive means you’ve assigned blame,” he said. “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.”

The Sullivans started the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund, its slogan: “Honor One Life. Impact Hundreds.” When a friend, who was a lawyer, expressed condolences and asked what he could do, Barry Sullivan asked him about a charity it could partner with. The friend mentioned 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.

Wyn Sullivan sent an e-mail to 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 fund-raiser at which Father Jenkins spoke that raised $600,000.

“How they reacted, that’s exactly who they are,” said Audrey George, the executive director.

On a visit last month to Horizons, Barry Sullivan met two kindergartners whom the fund sponsored. The two members were part of the group Horizons calls “Declan’s 40.” The boy scurried about the lunchroom at the adjacent school, near the rules that included “chew with your mouth closed” and “say ‘excuse me’ when you burp.” The girl showed off the decorations in her locker, the sweater in her backpack.

“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.”

Wynkoop returned to Notre Dame in October for the second anniversary of Sullivan’s death. He felt as if he needed to. He went to the memorial on campus and later took a shot of alcohol in remembrance with friends across the country at the time of Sullivan’s death.

He thought about the family and how they visited South Bend last year to accept Sullivan’s diploma and had dinner with all of his friends the night before they graduated, about the horror they have had to endure. He thought about how much Sullivan would have loved this season, how “it would have aged him many years just like the rest of us.”

“It was a long road for Notre Dame to get to where they are,” Wynkoop said. “Dealing with Declan’s death was part of that. The way I choose to look at it is I honestly don’t think they’d be where they are right now without him.”

For Father Jenkins, Sullivan’s death, and his family’s response to it, proved no less than transformative. They “took loss and grief and transformed it into something else, something generous and worthwhile,” he said. “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.”

Same, perhaps, as the words he left behind.

At the end of “Clouds,” the script flashes back to the scene of the fall, where, upon closer inspection, Guy manages to grasp the hand he leapt for and “watches his lifeless body fall to the concrete below.” Another hand “emerges” and pulls Guy up.

The script continues:

VOICE (heavenly)

“Welcome. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Guy emerges into the cloud. Fade to white.

The next time Dan Weber or any other usc moron brings up the passing of Declan as a shot against ND, they should read this article and learn a whole bunch from it.