When the Vikings meet the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, much of the fanfare will surround Brett Favre starting his 272nd consecutive game. However, much of the focus will be on a player making his first start – center John Sullivan.
Sullivan was a sixth-round pick of the Vikings in the 2008 draft and, almost from the day he arrived at Winter Park, it was assumed that he would be groomed to eventually replace perennial Pro Bowler Matt Birk. As it turned out, that timetable would be just one year.
While Sullivan's ascent to the starting lineup hasn't been received with the sort of hype that other new starters bring with them, it is significant. Since 1994, the Vikings have had only two full-time starting centers – Jeff Christy from 1994-99 and Matt Birk from 2000-08 (Melvin Fowler filled in for Birk in 2005 when he was injured). Much in the same way fans were stunned that the Vikings would allow Christy to leave via free agency in favor of an unknown late-round pick from Harvard, the same incredulity was evident when Birk was allowed to leave.
Sullivan was aware of Birk's contract status when he was drafted, but said he tried not to look too far ahead in hopes that the baton would be passed to him this season.
"I tried not to think that far ahead," Sullivan said. "People talked about scenarios. Going into last year, we knew that it was the last year of Matt's contract, so we knew this was a possibility. At the same time, I wasn't counting on anything. When I got my opportunity this offseason, I wanted to make sure to take advantage of it. I worked really hard, made sure nobody out-worked me and tried to perform my best every day."
Just as fans expressed outrage that Christy was allowed to leave to then-division rival Tampa Bay, Birk's exodus to Baltimore has been met with the same sort of scrutiny. How do you allow a regular Pro Bowl center to leave? The same reason the Vikings let Christy go – they were confident that his backup could get the job done at a similar level for a lesser cost.
While Sullivan may be new to fans, he's a fixture at Winter Park. Sullivan has spent the last 16 months preparing for this moment and said he tried to leave no stone unturned in his preparation.
"I think I've put in the work off the field studying," Sullivan said. "I've put in the practice time that has translated into game situations. Obviously, you will get different looks and see what you're not expecting to see, but all of that has been pretty comfortable."
Teammate Pat Williams, a mammoth defensive tackle who lines up across from Sullivan in offseason practices, said Sullivan will be just fine.
"But I think Sully's going to be all right. Sully's going to be good. He'll do real good," Williams said.
His transformation into an NFL starter is expected to be made easier by the signing of Favre. While the center is in charge of making the line calls, Favre's experience at reading defenses and seeing where he expects the pressure to come from will allow him to change the coverage to pick up where he believes he will feel the heat.
"The quarterback is always the trump card," Sullivan said. "If he wants something done one way, then that's how we're going to do it. But that's the same with all the quarterbacks. We live in their world. We're just trying to keep them safe and do their job the best they can."
Sullivan said his work ethic hasn't changed from being a reserve to being a starter. He said he isn't willing to rest on the knowledge that he has won the starting job. Instead, he said the fluid nature of the NFL requires players to work to get to the top level, but work just as hard to maintain it.
"Football is an ongoing process," Sullivan said. "The second you think you have something down, something else starts to go wrong and you have to work on that. You just have to keep trying to get better. You never stay the same – you either get better or you get worse."
The schedule didn't do Sullivan any favors. His first assignment will be against Cleveland's Shaun Rogers, the longtime Detroit Lion who gave Birk fits over the years. It will be an apprenticeship by fire, but Sullivan said he's looking forward to the challenge and hopes to make his first NFL start a memorable one.
"It will be what it is," Sullivan said. "I'll work my hardest, do the best I can and see how it goes."
All the while, however, the fun-loving Williams has been teasing Sullivan about Rogers, who hasn't played in the preseason, about the big nose tackle being ready for the first-year starter.
"I'll be messing with (Sullivan) all the time," Williams said. "I'll say, 'He ain't played no preseason, Sully. I think he's nice and fresh, so you've got your hands full.' Because I don't think he's played in no preseason games. So I'll be messing with him. Yesterday (I said), 'Rogers, he's nice and fresh for you, Sully.'"
Sullivan's ‘big' test lies ahead
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