A PAUL BUNYAN AMONG HIS PEERS ALL HIS LIFE, JOHN SULLIVAN FACED A CHALLENGE IN EIGHTH GRADE THAT NEITHER HIS MUSCLE NOR DEXTERITY COULD FIX. SULLIVAN HAD GOTTEN TOO BIG. HE WAS A FOOT TALLER THAN THE OTHER BOYS IN HIS AGE GROUP, AND WEIGHED 270 POUNDS, A FULL HUNDRED POUNDS OVER THE GREENWICH YOUTH FOOTBALL LEAGUE LIMIT. CRASH DIETS HAD KEPT HIM UNDER THE LIMIT IN PAST YEARS; THIS TIME THERE WASN’T ENOUGH FAT TO SHED. RELUCTANTLY, HE STOPPED PLAYING FOOTBALL.
“It was a pretty big letdown,” Sullivan remembers. “But it was probably a good choice in terms of safety.”
Instead, Sullivan played baseball that year. When he went on to Greenwich High, he contemplated joining older brothers Rick and Sam on GHS’s water polo squad instead of football. “I almost went that route,” he says. “Thankfully, I didn’t.”
Looking back, one is struck by the number of times fate seemed to nudge Sullivan in a direction few Greenwichites ever go, to the National Football League. Like his stint as a champion Greenwich High wrestler, a sideline that taught him the balance and lower-body control that helped him land a football scholarship from Notre Dame. Or his Greenwich High coaches’ decision to move him from left tackle, where he was a sophomore standout, to center, a position where he profiled better for the NFL.
“I feel like he had a destiny,” says Marilyn Sullivan, John’s mother. “He just followed a path.” If it hadn’t worked out, that would have been part of the destiny as well. “I do remember saying to him, ‘If you don’t do this, you’ll always wonder: What if?’”
Last spring the Minnesota Vikings added one year and $8.5 million to Sullivan’s current contract. The extension was both a reflection of Sullivan’s continued high level of play through the past two seasons and an investment in a key piece of what Minnesota hopes will produce a breakout season, with the emergence of second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the return of marquee running back Adrian Peterson after a season-long suspension last year.
Sullivan calls his extension “a huge vote of confidence” from the team. “We see a lot of guys in the NFL who get paid and then decide to shut it down, believing they’ve already made it. When I am rewarded with an extension like this, I only try to turn it on more.”
Since 2009 Sullivan has been turning it on as the Vikings’ starting center, missing only three games. “I think I have ninety-three starts in the regular season, which is the fourth most all-time for the Vikings at center,” he says. “It’s amazing how fast it sneaks up on you. I feel like I started yesterday.”
At center, Sullivan anchors an offensive line that protects the quarterback and creates space for the running game. Some years have been more successful than others. In 2012 Peterson ran for 2,097 yards, second-highest season total ever for an NFL running back. Peterson became the League’s Most Valuable Player; Sullivan was named an All-Pro center.
The last two seasons were considerably less successful, even though Sullivan remained a standout. “You can drive yourself insane determining success in terms of wins and losses,” Sullivan says. He measures success by what he can control on the field, namely the proper execution of plays and the hours of physical and mental preparation necessary for that to happen.
In the NFL, it is commonly understood that while a successful quarterback must be smart, a successful center must be smarter. At scouting combines, where draftees’ cognitive skills are measured, centers typically produce the second-highest scores, behind only offensive tackles.
From his place on the offensive line, slightly forward of the other linemen, a center must be able to recognize unanticipated defensive schemes and potential blitzes, and signal warnings to the quarterback. To that end, a big part of Sullivan’s work takes place in screening rooms, poring over video of next week’s opponent, trying to dope out their tendencies in particular situations.
Sullivan calls it “a puzzle to figure out every Sunday. If you embrace the mental side of the game, it’s incredibly interesting all the time,” he says. “It’s human chess mixed with real violence. I think that’s why it’s so popular.”
When Sullivan isn’t watching game film or working out with teammates, he keeps himself mentally stimulated with everything from a history book to Sudoku. One off-season, his mother says, John hired a tutor and learned French.
SAVVY ON AND OFF THE FIELD
It’s clear after a few minutes of talking to him that Sullivan’s skill set extends to handling media. He never gives a pat answer, yet you feel him weigh every word before it’s uttered. Ask him about concussions, and he speaks at length about NFL policy and chronic traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Ask about Peterson’s controversial suspension, for excessive force in disciplining his son, and Sullivan notes that Peterson participated in a diversion program, that he regards Peterson as a valued teammate and believes in “second chances.”
Sullivan is in fact so good at interviews that Minneapolis’s sports radio station, KFAN, airs weekly spots during the season featuring “Sully” discussing his team and just about anything else. “He’s very opinionated, but his answers are always well-thought-out,” KFAN personality Paul Allen notes. “In my seventeen years of hosting, John might be right at the top.”
It’s a gift John may have inherited from his late father, Ulric. An attorney with PricewaterhouseCoopers when he died unexpectedly in 2010, Ulric was known in town for his service on the Representative Town Meeting and the Old Greenwich Association. People were important to Ulric; he made time for them. “If he went to the grocery store for a loaf of bread, it would take an hour because he was talking to everyone in town,” Marilyn recalls.
Where John’s physical prowess came from is another question. Ulric’s only sports activity was lugging beer to PricewaterhouseCoopers softball games. “My husband and I are not athletic in any way,” Marilyn says. “But having three boys close together in age, we had to channel the energy or the house would be destroyed. So we played every sport known to man, except hockey. I refused to do hockey.”
John’s oldest brother, Rick, recalls John was always huge for his age, huskier and a foot taller than his peers. “John always wins everything he’s ever done, whether it’s Ping-Pong or video games,” Rick says. “He’s very competitive, though not more so than the rest of us on some level. He’s one of those people who clearly has an innate talent.”
GREENWICH HIGH BEGINNINGS
At Greenwich High, Sullivan found himself a starter by sophomore year, playing for a Cardinals team that went to the state championship three straight seasons, only to lose each time. He played defense those years, too, at nose tackle. Donny Panapada, Greenwich High’s offensive-line coach then, calls Sullivan “the best player I’ve ever seen.” “He definitely stood out size-wise, but more than that, for his athletic ability,” Panapada says. “The size pushed him to the offensive and defensive line, but he could have played tight end. He was a skilled athlete.”
It didn’t take long for colleges to take note. By his junior year, offers for full scholarships poured in. The intensity was flattering, but nerve-racking, too. It got so bad, Marilyn says, she and the rest of the family vacated the house one night.
“The phone never stopped ringing; we had to get away from it,” Marilyn recalls. “Yeah, it was exciting until it went on, day after day, week after week, month after month, and then year after year of this recruiting.”
John’s brothers Rick and Sam live in Greenwich and work in finance, Rick in private equity, Sam at a hedge fund. There is a fourth brother, the youngest, Bobby, currently in the Army. John speaks of him with palpable pride: “He’s my hero.”
As of last August, John has even more to enjoy in terms of family. He and his wife, Ariel Sullivan, a writer and homemaker whom he married in June 2014, have welcomed their first child, John Harrison Sullivan. And last spring, he and Ariel bought property in town. “Greenwich will be our home base post-football,” he says.
Life post-football is a prospect he hasn’t had to consider since the eighth grade. He turned thirty in August, making him one of the oldest Vikings. “I hope it’s down the road,” he says. “I don’t have a full plan for the time being. I’ve considered some options, but it is something I need to explore more seriously. I’ve been very fortunate to play, going into my eighth season, more than double the length of the average career. But you never know when it’s going to end.”
Sullivan pursues many activities while away from the game, like sporting clays. Jimmy Cabrera, a classmate since grade school who took Sullivan’s snaps as quarterback with the Cardinals, remembers taking him skeet shooting at Greenwich Country Club in 2009. “Since then, he went wild,” Cabrera says.
Cabrera is one of several friends from Putnam Generals days Sullivan keeps close to, even though they now reside in various parts of the world. Two years ago Cabrera left the United States to start his own business, Casco Charters, a charter-fishing and package-tour business in Panama City, Panama. He is not at all surprised by Sullivan. “Had he not chosen the NFL, he could have been successful in a number of careers,” Cabrera says.
THE GENTLE GIANT
One of Sullivan’s major commitments is philanthropy. While the NFL is well known for pushing players toward charitable endeavors, he goes the extra mile on behalf of the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis.
His work for the hospital began as a rookie, but really took off in 2011 when Sullivan took over the “Holiday Huddles” program started by a teammate. Each year, during Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, Viking players visit the hospital, keeping company with seriously ill children and their families.
Sullivan then approached the hospital to ask what else he could do. In the past few years, this has included bringing the rest of the Vikings’ offensive line to wine-tasting fundraisers, hosting a celebrity golf tournament (even though golf is one sport Sullivan admits to hating), and financing entirely on his own the construction of a playground on the hospital campus that bears his name.
“I have an opportunity to work with a lot of athletes,” says Nicholas Engbloom, a development officer with the hospital. “Many are in it for the right reasons. There’s something unique about John that I hope the NFL can catch on to. John doesn’t have a foundation. He’s writing personal checks. I hope more NFL athletes look at that.”
John calls his work for the hospital a “passion” but says little more. His brother Rick thinks it stems from when brother Bobby, then a teenager, spent a summer at a pediatric ward in Pennsylvania for a damaging stomach illness initially thought to be cancer.
“He doesn’t talk about it much, but I get the sense that he likes brightening the kids’ day,” Rick says. “I think John gets personal satisfaction from it.”
Sullivan drew much from his time at Greenwich High, not just athletically but emotionally. He remembers in particular an annual ritual at the end of every season, “The Burning of the Shoes,” where then-Head Coach Rich Albonizio and his staff encouraged departing seniors to discuss with their assembled teammates what their time in football had meant for them.
For most of them, it was their goodbye to the game. For Sullivan, that journey was just beginning. Now, as a thirty-year-old NFL veteran, his mind casts back to those end-of-season evenings over a decade ago. “Guys were encouraged to say how they felt, to open up. That tradition got emotional. No one made fun of it. Frankly, I think it’s something the NFL could learn from. When you identify so strongly with this sport, it’s not easy to transition out.”