At Notre Dame, nothing gets in football’s way

St Declan’s Stone in Ardmore, Co Waterford is probably more of a geological miracle than anything else but even if it didn’t, as legend has it, follow that county’s patron saint over the Irish Sea from Wales, it remains a subtle testimony to endurance and cultural memory.

That’s why I think it’s appropriate that Illinois native Declan Sullivan was named after him.

Sullivan, 20, a Notre Dame student for whom next Monday night’s College Football National Championship title match would have been the game of a lifetime, died just over two years ago when filming a team training session at the South Bend campus in Indiana.

As you might recall, the aerial lift upon which he and his camera equipment were perched was swept over by 53-mile-per-hour winds and for those who witnessed his fall from 40 feet, it must have been an horrific experience.

It was the sort of tragic death by way of freak accident which was destined to disappear back into the ether of the news cycle almost as quickly as its tragic details emerged.

Just before he fell, he tweeted twice: “Gust of wind up to 60mph well today will be fun at work... I guess I’ve lived long enough” and later “Holy fuck holy fuck this is terrifying”. Within 50 minutes of that second tweet, he was dead.

But just like that monument in Ardmore, his memory lives on around campus. The most refreshing element about this story, which was brought back to national prominence in the US this past weekend by Greg Bishop of the New York Times, is that for all the clamouring done on their behalf to ensure someone would be held accountable, the family have memorialised their son and brother without ill-feeling or desire for retribution. His sister Gwyneth continues to attend college there and his brother Macartan recently submitted his application.

But the mistakes were there for all to see. As the Times points out, the head of the sports department, the athletic director Jack Swarbrick, was there that day and the then new coach Brian Kelly chose to carry on with outdoor training despite the quickly developing storm conditions.

Kelly is now the coach of the year after an astronomical rise but it could all have been so different had his decision been deemed to have been reckless by the subsequent investigation. However, the university’s acceptance that the institution as a whole shared the blame appeased the family and saved everyone a trip through the courts.

“We’re just not those kind of people,” Sullivan’s father Barry 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.

“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.”

This of course may be interpreted as the sort of blind devotion which goes hand in hand with College Football in general and Notre Dame in particular.

It was my colleague Brendan O’Brien who pointed me in the direction of Melinda Henneberger’s powerful criticism of Notre Dame and the dominance of the game as a whole when she wrote a piece for the Washington Post last month headed ‘Why I won’t be cheering for old Notre Dame’.

In it she depicted the harrowing case of Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old student who committed suicide just weeks before Sullivan’s own death after accusing a football player of sexually assaulting her.

“A friend of the player’s sent her a series of texts that frightened her as much as anything that had happened in the player’s dorm room. ‘Don’t do anything you would regret,’ one of them said. ‘Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea’.”

A subsequent rape by another player went unreported, allegedly as a direct result of Seeberg’s cruel fate. That second victim also received threatening texts which were reported to the athletic director.

To date, neither of the players involved has been charged (one victim is dead and the other is staying quiet) and both enjoy anonymity outside of the famously secluded campus. Best of all, they will line out next Monday against Alabama, all of that a direct result of college officials looking the other way.

But the big game goes on. Some families will rue their tragic connection with Notre Dame while others will hold it dear.

*john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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