Notre Dame football fans can hardly wait for tonight's BCS title game against Alabama. But, for one Chicago-area family, the team return to the national stage is bittersweet, as they're still grappling with the loss of their son's life on a Notre Dame practice field two years ago.
IPR's Michael Puente has the story of how their forgiveness is helping the university heal:
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.
"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. 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."
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."
That's Alex Bowman ,who was a Notre Dame sophomore at the time.
"The wind was whipping around. Trees were moving back and forth. I was nervous."
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 how scared he was. The suddenly, a gust of wind toppled the lift and Declan fell to his death.
"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.
Alex Bowman was nearby on campus when he found out.
"It was dark. It was unimaginably sad. 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. 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 criticism of Kelly and the entire Notre Dame administration was harsh. And, more than a few 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 possibly let a student in that situation?"
That’s Teagen Lawson, a Notre Dame grad student. When I visited South Bend recently, she was working at a popular Irish pub near campus. I asked her how she would feel if Declan was her son.
"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.
"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."
Declan’s father, Barry Sullivan, says he still doesn’t blame anyone in particular and certainly not Coach Brian Kelly. In a 145-page report, Notre Dame concluded that the university was "collectively responsible" for what happened.
"It was an accident. Accidents are things that people don't intend to happen."
In the end, Indiana's Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied a fine against Notre Dame of 42-thousand dollars for safety violations, and the university agreed to set up a nationwide safety campaign for aerial lifts. Now, two years later as Notre Dame gets ready for its biggest game in nearly 25 years, Coach Kelly says the team hasn't forgotten the 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. 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.
Barry Sullivan says Declan’s memory also lives on through a foundation bearing his name. It's dedicated to educating disadvantaged youths in Chicago. But Sullivan knows there are those who still won't let Notre Dame off the hook for Declan's death. For them, he offers this:
"We don't look at it that way. Of all people, if anybody should have those feelings it would be Declan's family. 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 Sullivan's relationship with Notre Dame didn't end with Declan's death. He'll be in Miami cheering on the Irish. He also has a daughter named Wyn, who is set to graduate from Notre Dame in the spring. And his youngest son, Mac, well, he's due to attend college soon himself. His first choice: Notre Dame.
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