His name was magical even before he played in his first college football game and on Friday night — more than four decades after Pat Sullivan left Auburn University — his name will be honored one more time.
On Friday the 1971 Heisman Trophy winner returns to John Carroll Catholic High School in his hometown of Birmingham where the football field will be renamed for the school’s most famous graduate. The pregame ceremony is at 6:30 p.m., before his alma mater’s game against Springville. He will be joined by his wife Jean, their three children and their grandchildren.
Sullivan graduated from high school in 1968, and arrived at Auburn that fall. Freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity play and high school recruiting was not yet the cottage industry that it is today, but the campus was already buzzing about the quarterback from Birmingham.
As a high school junior he had run for 684 yards and passed for 1,657 yards and 15 touchdowns. As a senior he rushed for 681 yards and connected on 112 of 211 passes for 1,382 yards. Oh, yeah, he was also the punter, the placekicker and a stellar defensive back.
I was the Auburn beat writer for the Atlanta Constitution and coaches suggested I go watch his first freshman football game. Even then you sensed there was something special about him. I would see him play many times during the next three years — a time when the legend grew. Replica uniforms weren’t so prevalent then so you had to notice the number of young fans in the stands that began to sport No. 7 jerseys.
One of the highlights of his career, and probably the game that earned him his Heisman, was his senior year against Georgia in Athens. Both teams were unbeaten and all eyes were on Sanford Stadium. I spent that week in a motel in Auburn and colleague Mickey McCarthy did the same in Athens. We wrote matching stories, and for five days I soaked up the spirit of Auburn and their quarterback.
We had that Saturday off, but friends in Athens got Mickey and I press box tickets. There was no way we were going to miss that one. Terry Beasley, Sullivan’s favorite target, was covered tightly all afternoon so he turned to Dick Schmalz — a talented receiver in his own right. Schmalz became the hero as the Tigers rolled and Sullivan’s reputation exploded.
During the Sullivan years, Coach Shug Jordan’s club had a 26-7 record. Sullivan broke numerous school and NCAA records and he finished his college career with 6,284 yards passing and 57 touchdowns through the air.
Sullivan spent six unheralded seasons in the NFL and eventually got into college coaching. He was head coach at TCU for four seasons and back home in Birmingham he took over at Samford University in 2006 — three years after he was first diagnosed with throat cancer. He retired in 2014.
What do the current students at John Carroll know about him?
Not much, probably, which current coach Logan Colafrancesco wants to rectify. “Our students, our community need to understand what a person like Pat Sullivan means not only to the John Carroll community, but the Birmingham community,” the first-year coach said.
I prefer to think of him as a promising quarterback, not a courageous cancer fighter. It makes me sad to see him now and at the same time to hear reports of the struggles that Terry Beasley continues to have after numerous collisions and head injuries.
My prayer is that fans of today will come to understand the impact No. 7 had on Auburn University and the Southeastern Conference — and even the guys in the press box.