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Declan Sullivan wrote elaborate stories and screenplays while growing up in Long Grove, Illinois. On the last day of his life, the 20-year-old University of Notre Dame student wrote a single chilling sentence that predicted his death while the Fighting Irish practiced on the football field.

Players get the glory, regular students do the grunt work

Major-college football has long been every bit the massive business that the National Football League became after the NFL-AFL merger. Games may be played on scenic campuses on picturesque Saturdays that begin with pep rallies, guided tours, and tailgating. But what happens inside the stadiums is all business.

Big programs like Notre Dame rake in millions of dollars per game at the ticket windows, concession stands, and souvenir stores. Many head coaches have multi-million-dollar annual contracts, and top assistants can also make seven-figure salaries. And while players aren’t paid – legally, anyway – during careers that could lead to big-money NFL contracts, the 85 scholarships a year that FBS teams allocate can run up a $5 million bill for the athletic department.

Behind them all, though, serves a small army of athletic trainers treating players, graduate assistants breaking down game footage, and work-study program students doing everything from cleaning locker rooms to shooting video of practices for coaches to review at the end of the day.

One of those students on the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana, in the fall of 2010 was Declan Sullivan, a 20-year-old business major.

Declan Sullivan’s tragic death at a Notre Dame football practice

A professor helped Declan Sullivan land a job in the Notre Dame athletic department as a videographer. He would use his cameras to capture the campus atmosphere on game days, but his primary responsibility was to shoot video of weekday football practices, usually held on the Fighting Irish practice field.

As is the case with many teams at all levels, the most important video shot at practice originates from a scissor lift adjacent to the field. Scissor lifts, used primarily for construction jobs, come in even larger sizes, but video from 30 feet off the ground typically allows coaches to view afterward what all 22 players are doing as teams run through their scripts of plays.

Scissor lifts come with a warning about high winds having the potential to topple the lift, and it was the wind that led to the death of Declan Sullivan on Oct. 27, 2010.

Notre Dame’s investigation after the tragedy reported sunny but breezy conditions shortly before practice started at 3:45 p.m. The video coordinator was satisfied the weather would cooperate, so coach Brian Kelly took the Fighting Irish outdoors. Sullivan, however, saw a different forecast, one that warned of wind gusts potentially reaching 60 mph. Such conditions would have made using a scissors lift unsafe at any meaningful height. Ominously, he tweeted before practice:

“Gusts of wind up to 60 mph today will be fun at work … I guess I’ve lived long enough.”

–Declan Sullivan

While on the lift, he tweeted again. “Holy (expletive). Holy (expletive) this is terrifying,” he wrote.

Barely an hour into practice, a gust estimated at over 50 mph swept across the field and topped the lift that Sullivan was using. The tower crashed through a fence, hurling him to the street.

The aftermath at Notre Dame: No lawsuit, but changes

Shortly after the tragedy that killed Declan Sullivan, Forbes estimated that the University of Notre Dame could be facing a $30 million lawsuit from his family. Instead, the school never faced a civil suit in the matter.

Barry Sullivan said he and wife Alison never considered suing after seeing the university’s immediate reaction to the fatal accident. “We saw people that were obviously suffering,” Barry Sullivan told the Chicago Tribune. “They felt a great sense of responsibility for what happened. How could we add to their pain with displays of anger or anything like that?”

The school investigated immediately and found that “no one acted in disregard for safety,” but the Indiana Occupational Safety & Health Administration levied a fine in the high five figures. A week after the accident, President John I. Jenkins sent a letter to the Notre Dame community accepting personal responsibility. “Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe,” the priest wrote.

With the family’s approval, Notre Dame and the Indiana Department of Labor launched an educational campaign encouraging operators to lower the threshold for shutting down lifts to winds of 28 mph or lower. The Sullivans also founded a charitable foundation to benefit young people, and Notre Dame created a scholarship to assist students whose interests are similar to what Declan Sullivan pursued.


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