Former Vikings’ center Sullivan encourages kids to wrestle, play multiple sports
By Brian Jerzak
As a freshman in Connecticut, a young John Sullivan watched from the stands as his high school lost a dual meet to one of his school’s rivals. One of the matches Greenwich High School lost that night was at heavyweight. Sullivan felt if he went out for wrestling he could help his school beat that rival next time they faced off. Soon after filing out of the gym that night, the future Minnesota Vikings center joined the wrestling program. What he got out of just over three years of wrestling helped shape him into the athlete he has become. Competing in multiple sports is a path he encourages other kids who want to reach a high level in athletics or life to experience.
“We were wrestling a high school called Danbury High School that had been the dominant team there for a long time,” Sullivan recalled. “I watched their heavyweight beat ours, and I thought ‘I think I can beat that kid.’ I ended up going out for the wrestling team that year.”
While watching his high school team lose might have been the spark to get him interested, the future Notre Dame football star’s competitiveness added fuel to the fire.
“The competitive nature of wrestling is what drew me to it,” Sullivan – who was recently a training camp cut by the Vikings – said. “It is a dual meet, so it is a team sport, but what it comes down to is it is just two guys on the mat. You are either going to win, or you are going to lose. When I was out on the mat, I wanted to win for me, for my school, and for my team.”
Competition got him on the mat, but that wasn’t the only thing that kept him on the mat.
“It is a totally different type of burn from the conditioning wrestling requires. I saw it as a challenge. I bought into that challenge and bought into getting better. I figured it would help me with football. Being an NFL football player was my long-term goal, and I figured wrestling could only help.”
Sullivan bounced back and forth between JV and varsity his first year, but by the time his sophomore year started he had wrestling figured out. He dominated from the outset. From his sophomore season to his senior season, Sullivan went 138-6 and won three Connecticut state championships.
“I was big and strong,” said Sullivan of his almost instant success on the mat. “I was right at the weight limit for heavyweight as a fourteen and fifteen-year-old. I had good wrestling partners and coaches.”
While his physical skills obviously helped him have success right away, so did his mental approach.
“I spent a lot of time – I still do this with football – I spent a lot of time thinking about the sport even when I was not on the mat. I was able to figure things out, how I was going to attack matches, how I was going to deal with different situations and positions and go from there.”
Although he learned fast, Sullivan wasn’t great in all positions.
“I was terrible on top,” the nine-year NFL veteran said. “I would usually put guys to their back from the feet. I was a big front headlock to an under hook guy. My senior year I pinned a guy at Nationals in eight seconds with that move. I also couldn’t be held down on bottom. I don’t think I was ever ridden out my entire career.”
As a junior, he wrestled for Team New England in the National Scholastic Duals – in which he went undefeated against four or five heavyweights from other national teams. As a senior, he wrestled in the National High School Coaches Association Senior Nationals and took seventh place.
Sullivan believes his football career benefited from his brief, but successful wrestling career in two main ways.
“Physically balance is the number one thing. An offensive lineman needs to stay balanced all the time. They can’t get too top heavy and lean forward. The easiest way to get taken down in wrestling is to get your head out over your feet, get snapped down and the guy just spins on you. To be able to keep your head up is a lot like pass blocking.”
“The other thing,” continued Sullivan, “is in wrestling you are so exposed. Especially when you are a heavyweight, you go out there and usually as a heavyweight you are carrying a lot of baby fat and you might be self-conscious being in a singlet. That is not even a quarter of the battle. The battle is to wrestle another kid who is doing the exact same thing. It teaches you about competition and about yourself and how you are able to handle the stress of competition. Everyone knows when you get out there on a Sunday in the NFL, and you’ve got a one-on-one battle with a nose guard – you’ve got to be ready to roll.”
Wrestling has also helped him with his work ethic and his ability to handle different situations that come up on the field and in the locker room.
“Wrestlers are adaptable. Every single sport loves wrestlers. They know they are guys that aren’t afraid to work hard. It is almost a fraternity. I look for guys who come in, and I want to know every single guy that wrestled in high school because you have a special bond with those guys. People who have never done it will never understand. Wrestling is the most brutal sport possible. It is not going to lead to the most brutal injuries – that goes to football – but wrestling is more difficult in terms of cardio and the training – the grind.”
Aside from missing a handful of games due to injury earlier in his career, for the first time, Sullivan was forced to sit out an entire season because of an injury. Unable to play, in 2015 he was rehabbing his back. He credits his time on the mat as one of the things that laid the groundwork for what it was going to take to get back from a serious injury.
“Wrestling is a big part of who I am now. It has taught me a lot about toughness. Coming back from my back injury took everything I had with regards to toughness and hard work.”
When John Sullivan watched his school get defeated by a long-time rival on the mat, he thought he could do something about it. What he quickly found out was while he was helping his wrestling team win dual meets, wrestling was helping him reach his athletic goals. Wrestling did that for him then and is still doing that for him now. Above all, Sullivan wants kids to know participating in multiple sports – even if those sports are not football or wrestling – are going to help them achieve their athletic goals.
“The biggest thing is I want to encourage kids to wrestle. It doesn’t have to be wrestling, but I want to encourage kids to play multiple sports. Just because you are a football player doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wrestle, play basketball or do something. Especially if you have ambitions to go the next level in whatever sport, coaches like guys that are well-rounded athletes. If you are a football player and are an offensive lineman and you want to work on your flexibility and your balance, go get on the wrestling mat. You might get your ass kicked for a while, but who cares? That is part of the learning experience. You have to get tough. I want to encourage kids to get out on the mat. Wrestling is an incredibly rewarding sport.”