While the Vikings' 2011 season has been measured more by disappointment than positive progress, one player who has made an impressive, albeit largely unnoticed, improvement is center John Sullivan.
Coming off a tragic 2010 season that included the death of his father off the field and multiple injuries on the field, it was a year he would just as soon forget for many reasons. He saw the flipping of the calendar from 2010 to 2011 as a new beginning – both personally and professionally.
While the loss of his father still lingers with him, the day-to-day pain has subsided – he doesn't have bad days, he has bad moments. But he has seen his professional life due a complete turnaround – going from being an injured center on one leg getting dominated to being the one doing the dominating.
"I absolutely feel healthier," Sullivan said. "I feel my technique has improved. A lot of that is due to (offensive line) Coach (Jeff) Davidson. I feel good. Obviously last year was pretty tough with the injuries and personal stuff. This year I haven't had to deal with that, so there's a big difference there."
His dismal 2010 started early. First came the loss to the Saints in the NFC Championship Game – a crushing blow to all the Vikings involved who firmly believed the better team that day didn't win the game. As devastating as that loss was to all the players, it started a downward spiral for Sullivan that only seemed to pick up steam as the year progressed.
"I think it all kind of stemmed from the ankle surgery I had after the '09 season in February 2010," Sullivan said. "It was quite a long recovery and right before I came back is when we had the loss (of my father). It kind of timed out as poorly as possible. Then the appendectomy right before the season started didn't help – dropping 20 pounds. It was kind of the perfect storm."
The death of his father at the start of training camp was a personal blow that took a toll on him. Sullivan said football provided him with an emotional escape and a feeling or normalcy during the darkest of personal times. He said he used football as an outlet for his anguish, but, when the injuries arrived, it seemed like for some reason misfortune was piling up on him.
"It's something you have to try your best to block out," Sullivan said. "It shouldn't really have any affect on your play, but obviously when you're dealing with stuff like that it makes it more difficult. Really, the injuries were the biggest difference. Not having two torn calves has helped quite a bit."
The calf injuries were an ongoing battle throughout last season. He only missed two games last year, but was nowhere near 100 percent, as his "good leg" became his "bad leg" and then his "good leg" again as the season progressed.
"The calves kind of played off each other – once one was injured, the other went and it went back and forth the rest of the year," Sullivan said. "It was an injury that needed a lot of time (to heal) and time was the one thing we didn't have. Having healthy legs is pretty important. You can't really avoid using those."
The timing of Sullivan's comeback in 2011 couldn't be better. He is having his best season as a professional and, as luck would have it, his contract is up and the end of the season. If he hits the open market, there could be a number of teams interested, which is why there is growing speculation that the Vikings will work out a contract extension before the end of the season – a pretty common practice under the Wilf family ownership of the team.
Asked directly if the Vikings and his agent have begun negotiations on a contract extension, Sullivan gave a standard non-answer – neither a denial, nor a confirmation, just an intelligent Notre Dame graduate turning the question back on the questioner without giving a concrete answer either way.
"I think the focus at this point needs to be on our last six games and this team," Sullivan said.
To many observers, Sullivan has played as well as any offensive lineman on the team. Asked if he believes this is his finest season, he deflected the question with a smile and the glint of recognition that in fact it is. He took the diplomatic approach, but kept the focus on the present, not looking back or looking forward.
"I'm going to let other people make that call," Sullivan said. "My job right now is not focus on how the season has gone so far from a personal standpoint. My focus is what I can do over the next six weeks to help the team win."
As 2011 began, Sullivan was coming off the worst year of his life. As the year ends in a little more than a month, it may turn out to be the best – both professionally and financially.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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