When you have a 53-man roster and only 22 starters, there are 31 players on the roster that have varying levels on contribution to an NFL team. Some are guys who are just happy to have made a roster. Some are promising youngsters that a franchise hopes will be part of their building process to a championship somewhere down the line. Still others are aging veterans that have a small window of playing opportunity remaining.
Then you have John Sullivan. A rookie center from Notre Dame that many scouts rated as the top center in the Class of 2008, Sullivan is in something of a no-man's land in his first year. He's playing behind a Pro Bowl center in Matt Birk and, depending on what the team decides to do with Birk in the final year of his contract, Sullivan will either be asked to step in as a starter next year or continue to be groomed as an eventual replacement.
For his part, Sullivan is biding his time and waiting for the call to step into the starting lineup.
"When you come to a team that has one of the best centers in the league, if not the best center in Matt Birk, you don't come in expecting to start right away," Sullivan said. "I understood that when I came to the Vikings. Right now, I just prepare myself in case I'm needed in a game, and there's nothing better than watching and learning from someone like Matt because he is a textbook NFL center and does just about everything at a top level."
Sullivan's journey to the NFL was a strange odyssey that saw the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. As a junior, he was the anchor of an offensive line that featured first-round QB Brady Quinn and wide receiving magician Jeff Samardzija. The Fighting Irish were among the top teams in the country and, while scouts were eyeing Quinn as a potential future franchise quarterback, they couldn't help but notice the man who was snapping him the ball.
He knew that when Quinn and Samardzija left, Notre Dame was going to struggle. At times, he considered entering the draft as a junior, because he knew his stock would be higher than it might be if he remained at South Bend, and the result couldn't have been worse. The Fighting Irish had a record of 3-9 – the worst performance in 35 years. Sullivan was flanked by a pair of freshman guards and struggled throughout the season.
"There were times I thought that I should have entered the draft after my junior year," Sullivan said. "But I wanted to complete my four years and felt I owed it to Coach (Charlie) Weis. It was a tough season for all us, but it was a learning experience that in the long run I think will make me a better player. It's a lot more fun to play on a winning team, but you learn a lot more about yourself going through adversity. None of us ever gave up or got down on ourselves and I think it made all of us stronger mentally to go though some of the things we did."
Sullivan said he was a bit surprised that he lasted all the way into the sixth round, but when his name was finally called, he was happy it was the Vikings.
"It would be hard to pick a better team to come to," Sullivan said. "They have Matt Birk, Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie. Those are all guys who are at the top of their game and there's a lot to learn from them."
Birk shared that sentiment. A sixth-round pick himself 10 years earlier, Birk knows what it is like to be in Sullivan's shoes – waiting for his chance behind a Pro Bowl type player. At the time he became a starter, it was an unpopular decision among fans. But Birk quickly won them over – which the Vikings hope will be the same case with Sullivan if Birk is allowed to leave via free agency.
"I went through a lot of the same things he is now," Birk said of his rookie teammate. "You never knew if you were going to make the team and, at the time, we had Jeff Christy, who was one of the best centers in the league. I just kept working and learning and, when my chance came in 2000, I was ready for it."
With Birk's status up in the air – he is in the final year of his contract and, to date, there have no substantive talks between the team and Birk's agent about a contract extension – there is the chance that when the 2008 season is over, the Vikings will let Birk hit the free-agent market. As is usually the case, when a Pro Bowl-type player hits free agency, much less an offensive lineman, teams will get in bidding wars for astronomical contract amounts. If that happens, it is unlikely the Vikings will get involved. So, Sullivan is watching and waiting. If Birk signs an extension later in the year, it will give Sullivan more opportunity to learn behind one of the best in the game. If Birk goes, he will likely be vaulted in the starting lineup.
There is no telling at this time which of those two scenarios will play out, but Sullivan said he isn't worrying about it either way.
"What is going to happen is going to happen," Sullivan said. "I can't control it and have been taught not to worry about things that are out of your control. I prepare every week like I'm going to be playing, so when that chance comes, I am ready to go and do my part to help the team. If that means being a starter, so be it. If it means being a backup, I'm willing to handle that too. I'm living my dream of playing in the NFL and, when the coach tells me to go in, I'll be ready."
Whether that comes sooner or later will depend on the Vikings front office. When Christy was allowed to leave to Tampa Bay, Birk was a relative unknown who stepped in and helped the Vikings to division title on a team that advanced to the NFC Championship Game. Sullivan may have even bigger shoes to fill if Birk leaves, but don't be stunned if he produces similar results if given the chance.
"My day will come eventually," Sullivan said with a smile. "When it does, I'll be ready to show that the Vikings made a good decision by drafting me."
Sullivan biding time behind Birk
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