One Foot Inbounds: Tragedy Off The Field

One Foot Inbounds: Tragedy Off The Field
One Foot Inbounds: Tragedy Off The Field
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Robert Weintraub

This will be something of a departure for OFI. I want to discuss the tragic death of Notre Dame student and videographer Declan Sullivan. Surely you heard about the incident. Sullivan was taping the Irish practice from a scissor lift, a temporary and often rickety structure. The practice was taking place in cyclonic conditions, and an enormous gust toppled the lift, killing Sullivan.

I have some experience with scissor lifts, and with asking colleagues to shoot from them. My day job is as a television producer, and I often have employed the use of the lifts to shoot sports and other functions. Just this weekend, while producing a documentary on the fabled "Marching 100," Florida A&M's spectacular band, we used a scissor lift for a brief time to capture the precise formations the band traces.

Therefore, I can say with full confidence that the death of Declan Sullivan was not only preventable, but should have been prevented, and that Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and coach Brian Kelly should pay for the tragedy with their jobs.

Every professional cameraman has horror stories about shooting from scissor lifts. My guys this week all nodded grimly and knowingly when the news broke. No one was surprised. Many of them refuse to go up on a scissor lift in anything but perfect, windless conditions, such as those we had Saturday in Florida. And these aren't 'fraidy cats -- they have shot out the door of helicopters during boat races and jumped the wall in NASCAR pits and gotten in the way of angry bulls on rodeo shoots. Yet the idea that Sullivan would mount the scissor lift in conditions far from ideal shocked them.

Of course, a professional cameraman with 20 years of experience can refuse such an assignment. A student in thrall to Notre Dame football, and utterly at the mercy of the coach, cannot. That's why Kelly and Swarbrick are ultimately culpable for the death. I don't believe either was fully aware of the risks, nor were they callously disregarding Sullivan's safety. But as producer, I am responsible for everything that happens on my project. If I sent a cameraman to his doom in such a fashion, I wouldn't be able to look at myself, much less sweep it under the rug or chalk it up to fate. Kelly, and to a lesser extent Swarbrick, are responsible for all that happens on the practice field. Sullivan's death is on their hands.

And spare me the line about how "it was calm before the big gust that toppled the lift." I was in Florida and knew all about the windstorms raging through the Midwest. Again, scissor lifts have been known to topple in average breezes. There can be no doubt that sending anyone up under those conditions was an egregious mistake.

So it was with some satisfaction that I watched the Irish lose to the smallest school in the FBS, Tulsa. It wasn't just my knee jerk reaction to Notre Dame (root for the other team) at play. I didn't want Kelly to claim Sullivan's death gave his side a boost afterward, which would have been tawdry and small. As it happened, starting quarterback Dayne Crist was knocked out of the game and the season with a knee injury, and his replacement, Tommy Rees, made an error in judgment (a recurring theme in South Bend this week). Down 28-27 to the Golden Hurricane, Rees had the Irish in easy field-goal range. But with 36 seconds to play, Kelly called a pass. Rees mystifyingly threw off balance to the end zone. John Flanders had air-tight coverage on Michael Floyd, and intercepted, sealing the win for Tulsa. It was the singular result Rees had to avoid in that situation.

Kelly shoulders the blame for that call, just as he shoulders the blame for the tragedy during his practice.

Unfortunately, Declan Sullivan doesn't get a next week.


  • Missouri and Michigan State met their respective Waterloos in brutal road tests. Nebraska hit the Tigers with a first quarter avalanche, burying them with a 24-0 start, and cruised 31-17. Roy Helu piled up a school-record 307(!) yards on the ground, besting the likes of Mike Rozier, Roger Craig, Tommie Frazier, and I.M. Hipp.
  • Michigan State had a lot of doubters, and they are all smiling after Iowa destroyed the Spartans, 37-6. It was the largest margin of defeat for an AP Top 5 school since 2000. The two unbeatens going down is great news for the likes of Boise State, TCU, and Utah, all of whom won. The Utes survived a toughie with Air Force. The Falcons scored 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to make a game of it, and Utah had to stop them on downs twice in the late going to survive.
  • Ho hum -- Auburn spotted Ole Miss a first-play touchdown, then rolled up another 51 points while whaling on the Rebs. Cam Newton added to his highlight reel with an amazing touchdown catch, beautifully tapping his toes in the corner on a trick play. Cam threw two standard touchdown passes as well.
  • New Virginia coach Mike London stressed hitting to his team before his first encounter with Miami, and at least John-Kevin Dolce listened. His killshot of Canes quarterback Jacory Harris knocked the lanky Miamian from the game, and the Cavs took advantage, stunning The U 24-19.
  • In a topsy-turvy day in the ACC, Miami's loss fit right in. BC shocked Clemson, Maryland put 62 on Wake, UNC barely beat a team with just two players (William & Mary), and Duke gave up 24 fourth quarter points to Navy but held on for a 34-31 win over the Middies.
  • Jeff Maehl of Oregon is an outstanding player. Inevitably, he will be bludgeoned with comparisons to Wes Welker because of his skin color. Before he gets to that level, let's enjoy his all-around play on offense at wideout in the Duck machine, as well as on special teams. Saturday in the L.A. Coliseum, Maehl caught three touchdowns, kept several drives going with clutch catches on third down, killed a punt inside the 10, and celebrated a 53-32 thrashing of USC. Last season at home, the Ducks put 47 points and more than 600 yards on the Trojans. This year, in USC's "bowl game," the Quack Attack scored 53 points and rolled up more than 600 yards. One hundred points and 1,200 yards in two games against the Men of Troy -- wow.
  • Georgia simply can't beat Florida. The World's Largest Use of Portalets ended with a 34-31 Gators win in overtime. In a bizarre ending, Florida safety Will Hill returned an interception to the Georgia 1-yard line. Because he didn't score, the ball was simply turned over on downs to Florida, who then started from the 25 as per overtime rules. The Gators then kicked a field goal to win it.
  • In Orlando, Ronnie Weaver put Central Florida on his back and carried the Knights to the driver's seat in Conference USA East. Weaver had 180 yards and two touchdowns as UCF topped East Carolina 49-35.
  • Both Thursday's and Friday's ESPN games were decided by unforced errors. Florida State fumbled away the ball inside the 5-yard line as they drove to defeat N.C. State -- instead, the Wolfpack held on for the upset. The next night, West Virginia was poised to take the lead in overtime at UConn, but a bobbled handoff turned it over (West Virginia put it on the ground seven times, losing four). The Huskies kicked a field goal and beat the Mountaineers for the first time ever.
  • In case you're wondering, in the game I was at in Tallahassee, Florida A&M scored twice late, on a pick-6 and a long run, to defeat Morgan State on Rattler homecoming day, 31-17.
  • Now this Syracuse thing is getting interesting! L'Orange are 6-2 after walloping Cincinnati 31-7, almost perfectly reversing last year's 28-7 Bearcats victory. Syracuse blitzed Cincy backup quarterback Chazz Anderson into submission, and his goal-line pick in the third quarter locked it for the 'Cuse. Two wins in the final four games, three of them at home against beatable opponents, and Syracuse will be bowl eligible. But why aim low? BCS, here we come!
  • And on a personal note, I'd like to apologize for the recent run of sloppy errors in this column. I stand behind every opinion, and believe the writing is of the highest quality, but silly mistakes, small and easily correctable, are obscuring that. I will try very hard to eliminate them.

The OFI Top 25

1. Boise State
2. Oregon
3. Auburn
4. TCU
5. Alabama
6. Utah
7. Wisconsin
8. Ohio State
9. Nebraska
10. Stanford
11. Oklahoma
12. Iowa
13. Missouri
14. LSU
15. Arkansas
16. Michigan State
17. Virginia Tech
18. Arizona
19. Oklahoma State
20. South Carolina
21. Baylor
22. Central Florida
23. Florida State
24. Mississippi State
25. Syracuse

Lowsman Watch

1. Sio Moore, linebacker, UConn. He had 17 tackles, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries in the Huskies' historic win over West Virginia. His given name is Snorsio, in case you're curious.

2. Demond Washington, corner, Auburn. His 95-yard kickoff return touchdown not only cemented the win for the Tigers, but at the same time broke the school record for return yardage in a season. Washington also had a pivotal interception deep in his own territory.

3. Jabaal Sheard, defensive end, Pitt. He had two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles in the Panthers 20-3 whipping of Louisville.

4. Chase Minnifield, defensive back, Virginia. The whole Cavs defense played strong, but Minnifield's pair of pick -- including one on the play that Jacory Harris was knocked from the contest -- set the tone.

5. Jordan Holmes, center, Oregon. Another huge offensive performance by the Ducks, and another steady game by the line and its anchor. They never falter during Oregon's up-tempo attack, and they create huge holes for LaMichael James & Co.


15 comments, Last at 02 Nov 2010, 12:44pm

#1 by Will Allen // Nov 01, 2010 - 1:25pm

I don't know anything about this equipment. I strongly suspect that the manufacturer of this equipment has a strongly worded safety protocol for it's use, and I strongly suspect this safety protocol was ignored. If my suspicions are correct, this is at best horribly negligent, and the people who get paid the most to oversee the organization which uses the equipment should lose their jobs. At worst, this was horribly and WILLFULLY negligent. I don't know the standard for criminal negligence in Indiana, but it may be worth exploring.

Points: 0

#2 by Anonymous37 (not verified) // Nov 01, 2010 - 2:48pm

Did Rob seriously just say he believes his writing is "of the highest quality?" I noticed today that JFK's speechwriter just died at 82. Doubt he was a reader, but he just missed the opportunity to go out snickering...

Points: 0

#3 by BK (not verified) // Nov 01, 2010 - 3:26pm

It's definitely a 100% fireable offense for Kelly. As the head coach he is paid millions of dollars to be in charge of every aspect of the program. When you accept that contract, you accept responsibility too.

Points: 0

#13 by Spielman // Nov 02, 2010 - 11:15am

In theory, sure. In practice, it doesn't really seem like anyone with that level of pay/authority is ever held to a commensurate level of responsibility.

Points: 0

#4 by Led // Nov 01, 2010 - 3:34pm

"It wasn't just my knee jerk reaction to Notre Dame (root for the other team) at play. I didn't want Kelly to claim Sullivan's death gave his side a boost afterward, which would have been tawdry and small."

Rooting against an outcome that might have brought a small modicum of pleasure to a group of people coping with a tragedy? I'd say something here is tawdry and small.

Points: 0

#6 by dbt // Nov 01, 2010 - 6:15pm

claiming meaning in the senseless death of a 20 year old man based on the outcome of a football game seems like small solace to the people who actually, you know, knew him, as opposed to those who simply feel sad because something happened in their town.

Points: 0

#12 by Mountain Time … // Nov 02, 2010 - 7:02am

I'm sure Declan Sullivan's parents would have felt a lot better about their son's death if ND had won. "At least our son gave his life so that Notre Dame could defeat Tulsa in a regular season game!"

No, Led, I don't think that would have helped. I fear it could serve to help the general population and school administration to simply forget this annoying little death of a no-name kid ever happened. "What, Sullivan who? Anyway, who are we playing next week?"

Points: 0

#14 by Led // Nov 02, 2010 - 11:33am

You've obviously not looked into what's actually happening on the campus or read the statement of Sullivan's parents. That's ok, I suppose, if a little smug and shallow.

Points: 0

#5 by cfn_ms // Nov 01, 2010 - 4:58pm

Or do you mean that 55-19 doesn't count since it's now vacated?

Points: 0

#7 by speedegg // Nov 01, 2010 - 6:29pm

I fully agree with you Mr. Weintraub about the issue of safety. Having been in the military, it is already dangerous enough and you don't add to the danger by being stupid. Commmanders have been relieved for less and at the very LEAST, suspensions should be involved.

On to football. Though it pains me to say it, Oregon did a good job attacking USC schematically. I remember former head coach Carroll said the 4-3 Under scheme is vulnerable to play action since the MLB has to play his gap on the line, BUT needs to jump back into coverage on a pass play. MLB Kennard isn't fast enough to cover passes to Jeff Maehl and USC just couldn't adjust.

Points: 0

#8 by Kal // Nov 01, 2010 - 7:40pm

It was more than that; it was clear that all of their LBs were going to be jumping the play action to LMJ and make sure that they got to him before he made a second move. There were at least 3 TDs that were done simply by this simple play action motion - the cross in the end zone, the cross to Maehl that got him in the end zone and the wide open pass to Tuinei were all created by that quick playaction that froze the entire LB corps.

That's the real difference between the Ducks last year and this year; if you sold out the run last year Masoli might beat you with his arm, but it was a crap shoot. He killed by breaking off huge runs, but those could be beaten with enough overloading and assignments. With Thomas and the passing game doing so well, you can't just stop the run. Stopping LMJ only means open receiver reads. The one time this was moderately successful was against ASU, where Thomas had a bad day and they weren't going to take off the training wheels. Stanford tried the same thing, and Thomas ate them alive.

Points: 0

#10 by speedegg // Nov 01, 2010 - 11:59pm

To a point. It seemed USC tried some adjustments with WLB Morgan and S McDonald staying back to cover the middle zone and prevented a couple of throws to Maehl or the other receivers. Oregon used motion to the open side of the field to freeze Morgan and McDonald, but they looked lost in space on more than a few plays.

As a whole, the back 7 broke down between gap responsibility and zone coverage, especially with Oregon backed up on their own 4 yd line with less than a minute left. Oregon is on the 4, let them run and prevent a big pass or long run. All the LBs bit on the play action and Thomas hit Josh Huff for 57 yards.

Points: 0

#9 by zlionsfan // Nov 01, 2010 - 8:14pm

As you point out, Kelly is ultimately responsible for everything to do with practice, particularly with the decision to practice outdoors and the decision to have someone taping practice from the scissor lift.

I don't know that it necessarily needs to happen immediately, but it does need to happen. This death was entirely preventable: it wasn't like this was a 10-minute storm with completely calm weather on either side of it. I've never been to South Bend, but I graduated from Purdue, and I've lived there or in the Indy area since 1985. It doesn't take much to identify windy days, especially not when pretty much anyone can pull up a web page to suggest the weather, and the safety rules for scissor lifts are pretty easy to follow, from what I understand. If the wind is above X, you don't use them. (I think I read 25 mph, but the exact speed doesn't matter for my point.)

If the forecast says it may be more than X, you don't use the lift. If you have a lot of windy days, you don't use a scissor lift, period. It's not like you have to. I mean, it's Notre Dame. If this were Indiana State, then yeah, maybe you don't get to tape practice from above, at least not unless you practice near a building. But at ND, if the coach says hey, Mr. AD, I need a way to tape practice from above, Mr. AD makes a couple of calls, and suddenly you have the Joe Montana Practice Observation Tower or whatever.

It's too bad it took a death to make that happen. (I'm assuming they won't be using scissor lifts for a while ... I could be wrong. You can't put up a fixed object overnight, but I wonder how many people will be volunteering to go up for next week's practice?)

Points: 0

#11 by Breadbaker (not verified) // Nov 02, 2010 - 2:57am

Thanks for writing that. This whole situation has greatly disturbed me, because the Notre Dame reaction has seemed so completely the reaction of Notre Dame the football factory and not of the Notre Dame the Catholic institution.

At the very least, I would have expected to hear that the responsibility for deciding when the scissor lift could be used was being immediately given to someone outside the athletic department. Under the law of evidence, such a change could not be used against Notre Dame in any lawsuits (so as to encourage people to fix obvious problems), but the failure to do so could make someone criminally liable were this to happen again.

Points: 0

#15 by MaineMan (not verified) // Nov 02, 2010 - 12:44pm

I can't believe that there wasn't at least one supposed grown-up on the scene with sufficient sense of responsibility to tell the kid in no uncertain terms to stay the frak off that tower regardless who told him to go up there. When dealing with 20-yr-old college males in such challenging circumstances and faced with a choice of deciding between the guy knowing what he's doing and the guy being a reckless fool, always bet the house on "reckless fool." Every adult present should have known this instinctively and acted accordingly.

Points: 0

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