MIAMI — Declan Sullivan would have loved this weekend. For all the doubts his family has confronted in the 27 months since the death of their first-born son, his father is certain about that.
Like a lot of the kids in our neighborhood, Declan grew up a Notre Dame fan, Barry Sullivan said. He heard the stories in our house, we took him to games, it was always a part of his experience and in a way, I guess, his identity. That's what made him so determined to go there.
But as he got a little older, he began to appreciate what made it special, beyond just the football. ... Then he got into business school there and he'd call home, talking about the value of Notre Dame degree.
And what I remember now, thinking about back then, he added, his voice trailing off, was how much he'd grown up.
Declan Sullivan, named after an Irish saint, never got to finish that journey. He was killed in an accident on Oct. 27, 2010 – a fall off a 40-foot lift, from atop which he was taping a Notre Dame practice. He was 20.
What placed him there on a day when wind gusts pushed past 50 mph was the rambunctious spirit he displayed even as a kid, and the dream of getting himself on the football fields at South Bend one day.
His family's presence at Monday's national championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama is a way of remembering that spirit, just as they honored his memory by creating a memorial fund – partnering with the Horizons for Youth organization – to help other youngsters set off in whatever directions they chose.
In the immediate aftermath, there were fingers pointed, calls for accountability and speculation about lawsuits. The Sullivans anguished over mistakes made, knew only too well his death could have been prevented. Yet they remained quiet throughout.
We heard it, all of it, the speculation, the liability claims, but that was not our first impulse and frankly, we never found reason to think any differently, Barry Sullivan said. We kept quiet first out of a respect for privacy and also because an investigation was going on.
But we never felt the need to pursue any legal action. We never felt like we had to teach anybody a lesson. ... At every juncture, they treated us with kindness and concern, sympathy and obviously, they accepted responsibility for what had happened. We had great sorrow of our own to deal with, but it was plain that they were suffering, too. Maybe if we'd been confronted with a cold, unfeeling institution, we would have felt different.
But Alison (Drumm, his wife) and I looked at each other and we just kind of realized, he concluded. ‘If we don't pursue this, nobody else can, either.'
Notre Dame paid a $42,000 fine to the state of Indiana for safety violations.
The gestures that meant the most to the Sullivans were the private conversations with the Rev. Paul Doyle and university president, the Rev. John Jenkins, whose candid admission in an e-mail sent to the Notre Dame community concluded, Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe.