Two years ago, Sullivan’s 20-year old son, Declan, was a junior working in the football team’s video department. He ascended a hydraulic lift on a dangerously windy day in October 2010 — there was a severe wind advisory and gusts reached 53 mph during practice — and died when the tower toppled, crashing through a fence and onto a street.
The Notre Dame football program has come a long way in recent years, from mediocrity to relevance to dominance, and will take on Alabama in Monday’s BCS title game. But the journey the Sullivan family has made is not something that can be measured as easily. Two years later, they’ve found ways to keep their son’s memory alive.
Declan’s parents still live near Chicago. Barry is an engineer by trade, and Allison is a physician. They don’t blame the Fighting Irish football program or the school that was so important to their son. If anything, Barry Sullivan said, the success Notre Dame has had this season has helped them feel closer to Declan.
“It’s a positive experience for us. Right after the accident, I kind of wondered, ‘Will we ever be able to enjoy a football game, enjoy being on the campus?’ ” Sullivan said. “But we really have. I’m glad we’ve been able to do that.”
“I’d have to say the experience, if anything has drawn us closer” to the school.
In the days following the accident, critics were eager to point fingers and assign culpability. Forbes.com estimated the accident could cost Notre Dame $30 million. But the Sullivan family wasn’t interested in wrongful-death lawsuits or taking down a beloved institution. They wanted to make sure what happened to Declan didn’t happen to anyone else. And they wanted to make sure Declan’s memory lived on. The school helped them do both.
“It never leaves you,” Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly told reporters last fall. “We lost a young man. You never forget about that. . . . Blame is not a word that we feel is appropriate. We never thought in those terms. We thought in terms of loss and making sure something like this never happens again.”
The school conducted a six-month investigation and acknowledged insufficient procedures and safeguards. The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the university $42,000 for safety violations, and the Indiana Department of Labor helped organize a national safety campaign for aerial lifts run. Notre Dame launched a Web site to raise awareness of aerial-lift safety, LiftUpRight.org.
Since Sullivan’s accident, many schools have abandoned the hydraulic lifts altogether. The University of Florida spent more than a half-million dollars to install sturdy, permanent towers. At Notre Dame, the video department now uses remote-controlled cameras to record practices.
Following the 2010 accident, a fund was established in Declan’s name and, with all the national attention surrounding the tragedy, the account grew bigger than anyone could anticipate.
“We weren’t quite sure what to do with the checks we were receiving,” Sullivan said.
The Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund, buoyed by an undisclosed donation from Notre Dame, helps support Chicago area organizations such as Horizons for Youth, a nonprofit that provides mentoring, tutoring, family counseling for underprivileged children.
In addition, Notre Dame announced an endowed scholarship in Declan’s name and erected a marker near the LaBar Football Practice Fields. The memorial includes a rock with a plaque that features a shamrock and Declan’s initials. It’s the same spot the Sullivans used to meet Declan on campus. And it’s an area that Kelly walks by every day to his office.
“The loss of Declan was a tragedy to all of us in the Notre Dame family,” Rev. John Jenkins, the school president, said at the dedication ceremony. “This was a chance for us to come together in a place dedicated to his memory, to remember him and give thanks for his life.”
The Sullivans have a daughter at Notre Dame; Wyn is a junior. Her younger brother Mac, a high school senior, could be joining her there next fall. Returning to campus after the accident was almost therapeutic for her, the family said. And they all made sure to watch the Fighting Irish every Saturday this fall. The games have been enjoyable but different.
“In a way, everything is different for us. Holidays, celebrations, everything. It’s one of those events in life that changes absolutely everything,” Barry Sullivan said. “Other people have asked that question, ‘What is it like to go to a game, to be on campus, does it bring back memories?’ It doesn’t take a trip to South Bend to think about Declan. We think about him every day.
“Is it different? Sure, everything is. Is it difficult? I’d say no more than anything else might be — a little harder because you do have the memories and the thoughts about what might have been.”
Declan grew up cheering for the Fighting Irish, but Notre Dame hadn’t played for a national title during his lifetime. The year before Declan enrolled at Notre Dame, the football program was a lowly 3-9 under former coach Charlie Weis. Kelly took over a team that went 6-6 in 2009 and in three seasons returned the Irish to the top of the national rankings. Notre Dame finished this season 12-0 and will try for the school’s 14th national championship against Alabama.
“His only regret might be, if he were alive today, he’d be a graduate,” Sullivan said of Declan. “He wouldn’t be on campus every day. But he’d still be cheering for Notre Dame and happy to see them having such a successful season.”