A Special Tar Heel Fan
Several weeks ago there was a post on The Tar Pit that said something like "My husband is finally going to see his first game in Kenan Stadium after being told he had 5 years to live." I found this post to be interesting and one that I wanted to know more about. So I contacted the lady who made the post and asked her for more information. That's how I met Steven Sullivan the subject of the post.
After exchanging a couple of e-mails, Steven sent me a copy of an article written by Thad Williamson that was posted on uncbasketball.com last February. I found the article to be so interesting that I asked Thad if I could repost it for those of you who didn't get an opportunity to read it when it was posted earlier. Next time you get down about the Tar Heels or for that matter anything, read the article again and I think you will find that your problem will wilt in comparison with what Steve has had to face and he has continued to stay the course. It makes me sort of ashamed at how I have let a couple of basketball losses get me down, at least temporarily.
Steve is writing a second part of his story in which he tells us of the role Coach Bunting has played in keeping his spirits up. We will run that story when it is finished.
I indicated earlier that there was more to this story than was contained in Part 1. I had originally planned to write the story myself but then it occurred to me that this story, in particular, would be more effective if told by the person who experienced it. Steven Sullivan agreed to write the story in his own words and I think after you read it, I think you will agree that he was the best person to author the article.
I met Coach Bunting for the first time, thanks to Heelofaguy and the people at The Tar Pit. At the bash last summer, he saw the article and gave it to the coach and he told me what a great thing I had done and that he would love for me to come down to spring practice and meet everyone and to have lunch and supper with him and the team. He gave me his number and asked me to contact him, so I did. I got to go in the coach's office, workout room, locker room and down on the field with the team. It was great. It was like I had died and gone to heaven and just when I thought it was over, he said, "you are welcome to come to any game."
So I could not wait and my first game was going to be Florida State, but the night before the game, I started to have trouble with my kidney and I could not go. I laid in that room going crazy that day and it didn't look good for me. I said to myself, I bet I get better and I did.
So then came the SMU game and we know what happened then. My next chance came with the Wake Forest game. So I went and watched the game with Maria, Coach Bunting's Assistant, and her family. Maria has become like family to me and she made me feel like a part of her family. It hurt when I told her I was not doing good and that the SMU game might be my last. It made me cry and as I looked out onto the field one last time, it got to me.
So then came the SMU game and I got bad again, but I was going to go because it was my last chance to take my family and the person who made it possible for me to go, my wife.
You know, you really don't know what tomorrow holds but, for me, Coach Bunting made my dreams come true. He is a great man and a good person. You can hear it in his voice when we talk football.
I'm not going to the Peach Bowl, but I will be in front of the TV all the way.
P.S. People may think I am crazy because of my love for Carolina, but each time I get knocked down, they seem to help me up. You know, Coach Bunting could have just not contacted me but he didn't. This shows what kind of a person he is and I only hope I will be back next year when they are in the BCS. Thanks Coach Bunting for your support.
It obviously meant a great deal to Matt Doherty when Brendan Haywood's late basket lifted North Carolina to a riveting 70-69 win over Wake Forest on January 6th. Doherty's post game tears of joy and participation in the mid court celebration instantly became one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Smith Center.
But as much as that game meant to Doherty, it probably meant even more to Steven Sullivan of Columbia, South Carolina. Sullivan and his wife Wanda were in the stands that Saturday night-attending Sullivan's first game in Chapel Hill since he suffered a massive kidney failure in the early 1980's, failure which left him unable to walk until he received a life saving transplant.
Sullivan had been a 275 pound high school noseguard who dreamed of walking on to play football at his favorite school, North Carolina ( as a walk on ), until he suffered a career ending knee injury in the summer before his senior year. Sullivan was also a standout high school golfer. "He won so many tournaments, I think he could have went for it in golf if this hadn't happened," recalls his mother Donnie Jackson of Columbia. After graduating from high school in 1983, Sullivan began experiencing heath problems and rapid weight loss. Sullivan had to visit several doctors before before finally being correctly diagnosed with kidney failure. Sullivan's weight shrunk to less than 100 pounds.
Sullivan remembers little of that period, but recalls that he looked into the mirror and "didn't even know it was me." After the diagnosis, Sullivan was placed on a regimen of dialysis three times a day. A series of complications weakened Sullivan's legs and he eventually lost the ability to walk. "I went through the wringer," Sullivan recalls. During this time, Sullivan was cared for by Jackson, who had to juggle caring for her son with a job of her own.
While on dialysis, Sullivan says the days meshed together to the point that it became impossible to distinguish one day from the other. But Sullivan never forgot he was a Carolina fan--big time. While in recovery, Sullivan wore a North Carolina outfit during his hospital stays, watched every Tar Heel game, surrounded himself and his wheelchair with Tar Heel paraphernalia , and boldly set the seemingly impossible goal for himself of one day returning to Chapel Hill to see the Heels play in person.
Sullivan says the values associated with North Carolina basketball resonated with him at a very early age when he watched Phi Ford and his Tar Heel teammates on TV. "I've always liked their style. I've always been a person never to give up."
And during his bout with kidney failure, Sullivan had concrete evidence that Carolina basketball was more than just about what happens on the court. After learning of Sullivan's condition, Dean Smith began sending Sullivan letters twice a year and kept it up for over a decade. Sullivan says the letters simply wished him well and encouraged him to stay positive. Sullivan kept the letters along with other UNC related books nearby during his frequent hospital stays. "I'd show the letters to my doctors and it kept my spirit up", recalls Sullivan. "Every time I was doing bad, I'd say I'm going, I'm going, I'm going to make it back to Chapel Hill."
Sullivan finally received a kidney transplant from his older brother Terry in 1989, along with the prognosis that he had at most five years to live. Sullivan continued to live with his mother in Columbia, and a month after the transplant began using a walker to learn how to walk. Amazingly, within six months Sullivan was not only walking but playing golf again and shot a 76 to qualify for the City Amateur in Columbia. That feat caught the attention of a local sportswriter and the story of Sullivan's remarkable comeback appeared in several newspapers and magazine articles. For years, Sullivan held a state amateur long driving record (336 yards).
Sullivan took advantage of his improved health by working as a salesman, becoming active in youth golf programs in Columbia, and working with a foundation to help kidney patients. Sullivan also began giving motivational speeches at schools and colleges and even traveled to Duke Hospital to visit a kidney patient from Columbia.. And Sullivan continued to follow Carolina avidly- he recalls running around with joy, oblivious to pain, when Carolina rallied from 21 points down to beat Florida State in 1993. Still the former noseguard had not had the chance to return to Blue Heaven and attend a game in Chapel Hill (Sullivan had gone to several games in Chapel Hill with his father prior to the kidney failure).
In July 1999, ten years after Sullivan was given 5 years to live, he received a second kidney transplant, this time from his wife. (Steven married Wanda who worked as a nurse at the hospital where he was being treated in 1997.) While in recovery from complications from this second transplant operation, Sullivan frequently watched Tar Heel games in the hospital holding his newborn daughter whose first spoken words were reportedly, " Go Tar Heels."
Sullivan's long term prognosis remains uncertain and he remains under medical supervision, receiving check ups weekly. But a few weeks ago, Sullivan finally saw the dream of a return to Chapel Hill realized. Wanda e-mailed Tar Heel color commentator Mick Mixon about her husband and asked about the possibility of getting tickets to a game. Wanda was surprised to hear back that tickets could indeed be arranged, and shortly before Christmas, Wanda told Steven that they had tickets for the Wake Forest game on January 6th. My first reaction was, I couldn't "believe it," recalls Sullivan, but he soon began spreading the news to friends and relatives-and above all his mother.
Dannie Jackson recalls, "Oh, Lord, he called me 3 or 4 times to say, Did I tell you I have North Carolina tickets? He called me when he first got up there to remind me he was there. He had already told all of us if he had to go in a wheelchair, he would go. I was so happy. He made my day the first day he told me about it. It was fantastic. It was his dream." Jackson baby sat her 2 year old granddaughter Alyssa Sullivan while Steven and Wanda traveled north for the Wake Forest weekend. "He's got that child running around yelling 'go Tar Heels.' She'll be a fan, trust me," notes Jackson.
The couple traveled to Chapel Hill on Friday the 5th, arriving at night. The next day they visited Franklin St. . Steven bought " every souvenir I could find," including pacifiers and baby bottles for Alyssa and the Sullivan's second child (to be named Sarah), due this spring.
The Sullivan's then arrived at the Smith Center two and a half hours before tip-off and took in the sights. And Steven recalls, "My wife didn't understand why I worked so hard to make it back here until we walked into the Dean Dome and she looked into my eyes."
When Brendan Haywood scored to give Carolina the victory, Wanda relates, "We were both jumping up and down. He probably enjoyed it a little more than I did. It was a great win ." After the game," Steven says, "I was taking napkins, popcorn cups, anything. I even tried to run on the court but they wouldn't let me."
Sullivan adds that the whole weekend went by in a blur, and that the only moment when it began sinking in that he had actually returned to Chapel Hill, to the school he once hoped to play for, was Sunday morning when he paid a visit to Kenan Stadium and peered through the locked gates. Sullivan hopes to return this fall with his daughter to attend a UNC football game.
Matt Doherty realized a dream the night of January 6th by coaching the Tar Heels to a big win over a top ten team on a last second shot. And Steven realized a dream by watching it happen - a dream which he credits with helping prolong his life. "There are two kinds of fans," Sullivan says. "The kind that roots for somebody because they win and the kind that roots for somebody because they believe in them... I heard some people a while ago talking about who should be the football recruiting coordinator. Well, I'd make a good one because I could sell North Carolina to anyone. I'm living proof."
It's not reasonable to expect North Carolina's players to to have a full sense of how much the jerseys they wear mean to so many people near and far when they hit the floor in Durham Thursday night for the biggest regular season game they have ever played in. That kind of perspective can only come with time and distance.
But for the rest of us, it shouldn't be too much to think about Steve Sullivan watching the game in Columbia on Thursday night with his daughter to whom he hopes to pass on Carolina fever at as young an age as possible "in case something happens to me." And it shouldn't be too much to heed Sullivan's reminder that the real measure of a great athlete or a coach like Dean Smith is not "just what they do in sports, but what they do to help individuals." Carolina basketball helped Steven Sullivan in a tangible way, both through the letters from Smith, and by communicating the larger message of never giving up, no matter the circumstances. Sullivan in turn recovered to beat his doctor's prognosis, start a family of his own and help others in need in the process. Sullivan speaks straight from the heart when he says his connection with Carolina "gave me hope. I probably wouldn't have met my wife or had the chance to have a child without it."
Sullivan's story challenges the old cliché that "it's only a game." It is only a game but the spirit and ethos displayed in all those games for all those years by players wearing Carolina blue has the power to spill out into 'real life' in surprising and powerful ways. Not even a win over Duke Thursday night would provide a better story for Carolina fans than the one Steven Sullivan could tell you.
Thad Williamson has a new book out entitled "More Than A Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many." It can be ordered from the following link: