On the field, Carolina again wasted a decent early effort and ended up getting waxed for yet another home loss. All in all, not a good day for Carolina football or the larger Tar Heel family.
But, believe it or not, that's not quite the whole story. Thousands of Carolina fans were left disheartened by the most recent showing on the gridiron, but at least one fan left Kenan Stadium Saturday with greater resolve and belief than ever that John Bunting is the man for the job and will get things turned around.
That fan's name is Steve Sullivan, a 39-year old salesman and insurance claim processor in Columbia, SC, who doubles as just about the most inspirational Tar Heel you could ever hope to meet. Steve, who was profiled on uncbasketball.com in February 2001, has been battling kidney disease his entire adult life, starting with a terminal prognosis issued over a dozen years ago. Steve has outlived the doctors' projected life span by about a decade, fueled by a deep personal determination, and in no small measure, by a pure love for everything having to do with the University of North Carolina. Steve has lived to see dreams come true, from starting a family to becoming almost a regular attendee at UNC sporting events.
But there have been bright spots–including several morale-raising late-season trips to the Smith Center last winter. If you ever wondered to yourself how on earth Carolina pulled out that game against Georgia Tech in Chapel Hill last February, wonder no more: Steve Sullivan, the most diehard of diehard fans, was in the building for the first time in over two years, on a ticket obtained through the good graces of Adam Lucas of TarHeelBlue. It might well be the case that Steve and Raymond Felton were the only two people in the arena who hadn't given up with a minute to go in that one!
A week later, Steve found a ticket to the Duke season finale on his own steam, and we know what happened there. Steve even showed up in Greensboro and got to witness Carolina's shocking win over Maryland when a fan of a rival school took pity on Steve standing in the Greensboro rain and offered him a ticket at a reasonable price.
Even more significantly, however, Steve has been sustained by loyal friends–friends like Robert Alley, a Columbia businessman who has established the Steve Sullivan Foundation with the aim of raising money to assist with Steve's living and medical costs as well as to provide assistance over the long term for Steve's two daughters. The Foundation is up and running with a website (visit www.stevesullivan.org), and plans are in the work for a celebrity pro-am golf tournament next spring to raise money for the Foundation.
Another loyal friend who has made a big impact on Steve in recent months is John Bunting. Bunting was told of Sullivan's story back in 2001 and invited Steve to come attend a game in Kenan as his guest. Since then, the Carolina head coach has taken a personal interest in Steve above and beyond simple grace and courtesy, becoming one of Steve's biggest fans.
When Bunting learned of Steve's recent health setbacks this spring, he immediately sent Sullivan an autographed football. In late July, Bunting called Steve to check in on him, then asked him whether he might be able to make it up the next day to participate in the annual football staff golf outing at Finley Golf Course. Steve leapt at the opportunity–and in fact hardly slept a wink that night before rising at 6:30 a.m. to make the trek to Chapel Hill.
Steve spent the day mingling with the football staff and other Athletic Department officials, but also battling it out on the links as part of Bunting's Captain's Choice foursome. Steve, a former long driving champion in South Carolina, supplied much of the heavy lumber off the tee that day, but it was the 18th green that provided the most memorable moment. Bunting's group needed to sink a 30-foot birdie putt to force a playoff, and after three misses Steve crouched over the ball as the last hope.
A moment later, Bunting was jumping up and down as if the Heels had just come up with a stop on 4th and goal–sleepless Steve Sullivan, physically exhausted from walking around the course, had sunk the putt.
Since the start of practice and the season, Bunting's time has naturally been much scarcer, but the head coach brought Steve in as a guest to the FSU season opener and still makes a point to send Steve an email every few weeks. After yet another health setback last week, Steve and Robert Alley decided that a trip to Kenan Stadium for the Virginia tilt would at least take the mind off the fears and problems at home.
Apprised of the visit, Bunting left Steve a pass to the field house, then turned and broke away from a group of visitors to greet Sullivan and Alley upon their arrival. Bunting then told the other visitors all about Steve's story, adding that he didn't know what courage really was until he had met Steve and seen his fighting spirit in person.
You see, Bunting doesn't simply see Steve as object of his compassion, though he has been exceptionally kind to Steve. Coach Bunting likes having Steve around because it inspires him and helps him keep going, too.
Unfortunately, that moment of pre-game inspiration wasn't enough for the Tar Heels, but it was more than enough to keep Steve Sullivan's tank fueled and provide a badly needed morale boost. Living with uncertainty and fear about the future has become old hat for Steve–but so too has enjoying every precious moment of life.
Steve doesn't know how much longer he is going to be able to hold off kidney disease, but he says he has three remaining wishes in life. The first, most significant one, is that his two very young daughters be taken care of and provided for, and that they grow up understanding what kind of person their father is and how much he loves them.
The second is to see North Carolina win another national championship in basketball. The third is to see the day when John Bunting gets the North Carolina football program turned around. "I'm not good at putting down what I believe in my heart, but I believe in him and thanks to him, I've lived a dream come true," says Sullivan. "We should count our blessings that we have a coach that cares about people and believes in Carolina."
Sideline critics and journalists always have lots to say about losing teams and what they should be doing better. But John Bunting has without doubt gotten one thing absolutely right: if you could somehow translate the determination and courage Steve Sullivan has brought to battling kidney disease and all that goes with it for 15 years to the heart of a football team, you'd have one heck of an outfit, a team with the ability to keep on keeping on even after your back's been pinned against the wall.
No one can predict just how long Carolina's time in the football wilderness will last, just as Steve Sullivan can't predict how long his health is going to hold out. But if Steve Sullivan's determination to keep on living and not give in gets him an extra month of life, an extra year, an extra five years, or even more than that, John Bunting will have had something very, very important to do with it.
And if a year or two down the road, newspapers are writing about a bowl-bound Tar Heel team and the remarkable resurgence of John Bunting's program, Steve Sullivan, whose example of courage is helping inspire and motivate a coach going through tough times this fall, will have had something significant to do with that, too.
Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Steve Sullivan Foundation online via www.stevesullivan.org or by check to Steve Sullivan Foundation, 5202 Lakeshore Drive, Columbia, SC 29206. Donors of $20 or greater will receive a signed, personalized copy of Thad Williamson's book More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many.
Thad Williamson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org