The last anyone remembers of him, Mark Sullivan was playing middle guard for Ohio State and receiving the Woody Hayes Memorial Trophy for being the most valuable player in the Buckeyes' 9-3 loss to Michigan. That was in 1980, the same year Sullivan acquired a two-foot alligator as a pet. The gator is long gone—it froze to death—but there was Sullivan last Saturday, pulling on the pads and suiting up for John Carroll University, a Division III school in University Heights, a Cleveland suburb.
In the seven years since he left Ohio State, Sullivan, 27, has become balder, and more soft-spoken, and less of a wild man. But his slow-building grin remains, and he's still looking to knock down the ballcarrier, even if he has to run through three or four blockers to reach his target. So what if there are only 3,000 fans in the stands, not the 87,000 he was used to playing before at Ohio State; so what if the opposition is the likes of Hiram College—which beat John Carroll 26-3 on Saturday as Sullivan had nine tackles—instead of Iowa or Michigan State?
This time Sullivan isn't getting any money for tuition, books or room and board in return for putting on a uniform. At Ohio State he was a walk-on football player with a partial wrestling scholarship, which is the way the late Woody Hayes had Sullivan's ticket punched. "Everybody else said I was too small," says the 5'9", 225-pound Sullivan, who was an all-state middle guard his senior year at Lake Catholic High in Mentor, Ohio. " Bear Bryant said he liked my ability, but he didn't have enough scholarships to take a chance on my size. Woody just said come on down and wrestle, and, by the way, football practice starts in August."
That was in 1978, the year Hayes was fired after throwing a right hook at a Clemson middle guard, and Sullivan, a homesick freshman, lost his mother, Marilyn, to leukemia. The combination was more than Sullivan could handle; he carried his grief nightly to local saloons, where he became the unofficial and undefeated barroom bare-knuckle champion. "I was just a misguided young man," he says. "I come from a real close family, four brothers and a sister, and we will do anything for each other, literally. Halfway through my freshman year Mom died, and it started to wear and tear on me, being alone down there at State. Then I lost Woody. He was like a grandfather figure to me and to a lot of the other guys. When Mom died, he was up in my room every night talking to me. We became real close. Then he was gone. Things just didn't come together for me after that. I was a hell-raiser. It was just part of a night out to get into a fight."
Sullivan's bar fights were legendary. He never started any; he never backed away from any; he never lost any. "People thought I was too small to be a football player," he says. "Or they didn't know I was a football player and just thought I was too small. I guess I just felt I had something to prove."
And there was the alligator that he bought from a teammate for $35. "That gator was mean. I liked to throw it on people to see if it would bite," says Sullivan, who speaks with some embarrassment of his unholy past. He took the alligator home after he got it drunk on vodka in his dorm room and it threw up on a roommate's rug. Sullivan's father, Edward, let him keep the gator in a 200-gallon tank in the backyard. "It was fine," says Sullivan, "until one morning I woke up to find it frozen solid in ice."
Then, following the Buckeyes' game against Michigan his junior year, Sullivan simply walked away. "I felt I needed to change my life," he says. "I was going out too much and not showing up at classes." He tried to find work first in the Canadian Football League and then in the USFL. Neither had any interest in a 5'9" aspiring linebacker. He played one season without pay for the semipro Canton Bulldogs. He worked as an unpaid assistant coach at his former high school, where he helped train his brothers, twins Mike, a starter at middle guard for Ohio State, and John, a sometime starter at linebacker for the Buckeyes, and seven of his current teammates at John Carroll. And he took construction jobs with his father, a general contractor.
In 1983, Sullivan enrolled at John Carroll and stayed just long enough to become the runner-up in the heavyweight class at the Division III national wrestling championships. "I still wasn't ready for the books," he says. Sullivan then spent four months training with Iowa and U.S. Olympic coach Dan Gable in a bid to make the team for the Los Angeles Games. He finished fifth at the trials; only the first three finishers made the trip to L.A.
In January of this year Tony DeCarlo, then the John Carroll wrestling coach, talked Sullivan into returning to school, and he again finished second in the heavyweight class at the Division III championships. Only last January, when DeCarlo became the John Carroll football coach, did Sullivan think of again putting on the pads.
Just before the start of the season, the NCAA ruled that Sullivan's year with the Bulldogs did not violate his amateur standing, and that he could complete his final season of college eligibility.