He was always nice to me and he didn’t have to be.
At John Carroll Catholic High School in 1966 in Birmingham, I was in 9th grade. He was in the 11th. He quarterbacked the football team, had a deadly corner shot in basketball that would easily qualify for today’s three pointers and… oh yeah he was outstanding in baseball.
On football Fridays, Pat and the other football players on varsity could come to school out of uniform, (white shirts, blue tie, charcoal gray pants) and wear their jerseys to class. They paraded like peacocks leading up to the afternoon pep rally and game that night.
On cool days they wore their letter jackets to school. They were cool, studs. Pat wore his with pride. I watched him. I studied him. He was special! Nice! I wanted to play with him. Pat would speak to me and give me a smile. That was important to me, more important than he knew. It was integration. I was a stranger in a strange land, navigating a new world, alone in a crowd. That smile meant and still means a lot.
Ultimately, I followed Pat Sullivan to Auburn. There, he again was, “the man,” still without the swagger. Without the arrogance that can sometimes come with being “extra.” He had an incredible career. He won the Heisman Trophy. He gave Auburn fans mental highlights that still flash across the screen in their heads today. He was #7.
I walked on at Auburn. Played freshman ball and got the coaches attention. They asked Pat about me. Imagine, they asked the star player about this black kid who walked on. A kid no one knew. But Pat knew me. He knew me enough to say that I had gone to John Carroll and that I was a good student. Pat told them that everybody liked me and most importantly, I was fast. That spring, I got more than a fair share of repetitions. One day, the coaches put me in for a few plays with the first team offense against the first team defense. I’ll never forget it. It’s great as a young athlete to look up to someone and then actually get to play with him, even if it is “just practice.” It was much more than that to me.
Pat stepped into the huddle and said to the linemen, “Hold them out guys, this one is a touchdown.” THEN… he called my number. I still remember the jitters in my stomach as I jogged out to my position. Surveyed the defense. I got open on a deep post route. Pat let it go. It fell into my arms. I cradled it like a newborn. “Touchdown.” Just like he said. I’ve been a believer ever since.
After that spring, the athletic department awarded me a scholarship. I had a chance to actually play with Pat his senior season. Then the coaches decided to redshirt me. I wanted to play with him! Still, I dressed and traveled every game. What a treat for me! I got to watch Pat up close. In Knoxville, he led us from behind to win 10-9. We ran off the field like we had stolen something. We had a victory. At Georgia, he won the Heisman. What an afternoon. He was the field general, in command. The Auburn fans felt the electricity. His teammates felt it. They would run through walls for him. They believed in him. When Pat ran off the field I waited for him to trade hand slaps.
Other than that magical spring when he threw me the ball every chance he got, I never again played with Pat. But he made me feel like the closet teammate. Great people can make others feel as though their relationship is uniquely special. It’s one-on-one. I felt that way with Pat.
In 2007, I asked Pat if he would write the forward for my book, WalkOn My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University. He agreed. He wrote in part…
…I try to instill in our players some of the lessons I learned from those times, the journey of life and the foundation a young man can lay for his own future. I use Thom Gossom as an example of a man who had a dream, a vision of himself, that he never gave up against all odds,…
Thank you Pat Sullivan for nurturing that dream and helping to make me possible.