Commentary

Time to remember Declan Sullivan

Updated: October 29, 2010, 6:59 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

When in doubt, blame someone.

That's what we do when tragedy happens. We don't look for a reason as much as we look for a villain. A victim can't just be a victim. There has to be a culprit to justify our anguish.

Declan Sullivan died much too young and in a way that defies logic. So our first instinct is to angrily point a forefinger at Notre Dame and say, "It's your fault." As if that will bring Sullivan back to life.

Powerful, destructive gusts of wind swept through the Midwest this past week. I live there. I saw and heard them before I left to cover the World Series. Parts of our suburban Chicago neighborhood looked like a disaster zone after they swept through.

[+] EnlargeDeclan Sullivan
AP Photo/Matt CashoreThe Rev. Thomas Doyle gave the homily at a Mass of remembrance for Declan Sullivan on Thursday.

Those same punishing winds descended on the 1,250 acres of the Notre Dame campus. The sturdy and stately Gothic buildings could withstand the wind blasts. A metal lift -- and the 20-year-old placed inside its metal basket -- could not.

An act of God and an act of neglect are a lethal combination. Sullivan should never have been on that scissor lift that day. On this there can be no dispute.

But the circumstances and details that complete the how, why and what of this tragedy remain unknown. And the mourning of Sullivan has just begun. To insert blame into that dynamic, even as his fellow Notre Dame students celebrate the life of one of their own, seems almost offensive.

Yet, there are those who have already called for the dismissal of the school's football coach, Brian Kelly. It happened on his watch, they say. It happened adjacent to his practice field. It happened because he insisted on an outdoor workout that day. He should have known better.

Someone should have known better. But that line stretches far and beyond Kelly. And until a thorough investigation is completed and those findings made public, it's disrespectful to the memory of Sullivan to think a football coach's firing would ease a grieving family's pain. Dismissing Kelly would be a simplistic reaction to a complicated issue. It would solve nothing.

Notre Dame will likely be sued. And Notre Dame will likely pay a substantial financial price for whatever role its employees played in this accident. Somehow a conga line of lawyers will try to equate money with a life. It is an equation that can't be solved.

But that's for a sad day in the future. In the present, it should be about Sullivan, who loved his school, who adored his football team and whose incandescent smile was as familiar as the gold on the dome of ND's Main Building.

This isn't a time to blame. Not yet. Not now. Instead, it is a time to do what's right.

It would be nothing more than a gesture -- although a heartfelt one -- but the university should consider renaming those three football practice fields in memory of Sullivan. Yes, I know: The $2.5 million project was originally dedicated to Notre Dame grad Rees LaBar and his wife, Carol.

But perhaps they wouldn't mind. After all, there is a connection between the LaBars and Sullivan. According to the university's website, a LaBar grandchild is a junior at Notre Dame, the same class as Sullivan.

Decals honoring Sullivan will be placed on the back of Notre Dame's helmets when the Fighting Irish play Tulsa on Saturday. It is a small but meaningful tribute.

An even more meaningful and lasting tribute would be for the football department to establish an endowed scholarship in Sullivan's name. You get the feeling, especially after hearing the remembrances from those who knew him well, that he would like that.

It's easy to be angry and frustrated about Sullivan's death. It was so cruelly arbitrary and so unnecessary. Why him? Why now?

We've all had our personal tragedies. I had a younger sister die of cancer in her 40s and a father die of a heart attack in his early 50s. Blaming someone or something for those deaths is a wasteful convenience. Moving forward is a necessity.

There is no logic in what happened to Declan Sullivan. But it is too early to name accomplices. All we know is that we don't know. And that's not good enough to start pointing fingers.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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