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Sullivan's funeral a time to reflect

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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BUFFALO GROVE, Ill.

The wind gusted just north of Notre Dame’s football practice fields on Saturday afternoon as the crowd roared.

As “Touchdown, complete to Michael Floyd for a Notre Dame touchdown” echoed from nearby Notre Dame Stadium, the petals of a potted pink mum swayed at a makeshift memorial and an empty Miller Lite beer can rattled along on the sidewalk.

The cheers for the Fighting Irish's first points against Tulsa on wide receiver Michael Floyd’s 10-yard touchdown reception again reverberated moments later when an official affirmed the score after a replay.

But for the first time, Declan Drumm Sullivan couldn't hear them. The 20-year-old student videographer from Lone Grove, Ill., died Wednesday after the scissor lift that held him aloft while he filmed Notre Dame's practice was toppled by a burst of wind on a day gusts reached up to 50 mph.

Just like Sullivan couldn’t hear the moment of silence and prayer in his memory before Saturday's game or "Irish Blessing," which hundreds sang Monday when they packed St. Mary Parish in this Chicago-area suburb for his 90-minute funeral service.

As they walked in, they were greeted by a large, framed photograph of the mop-haired redhead wearing an ND blue polo shirt and flashing his toothy smile.

“He was creatively brilliant and unbridled in his enthusiasm,” Rev. Thomas Doyle, Notre Dame’s vice president of student affairs, said during the service. “To him, the boredom of conventional thinking was intolerable.”

Among those in attendance was Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, wearing a pin-striped black suit with a red tie, and a half-dozen or so Fighting Irish players like star linebacker Manti Te’o. But noticeably absent was the bulk of the team. Not that many players knew Sullivan anyway.

Quarterback Tommy Rees didn't. Neither did running back Cierre Wood, linebacker Brian Smith or Te’o.

“That’s pretty bad when he’s part of your family,” Smith admitted.

But those Notre Dame players who did attend learned what his family and friends already knew about the marketing and film major: He was an aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker with lengthy hair his mother thought he should cut but which his sister, Wyn, a Notre Dame freshman, believed attracted coeds.

Wyn recalled the last time she saw her brother, Oct. 24, when he helped carry her bags back to her dormitory from a bus stop. He always invited her with his friends and kept her informed of the best parties.

He had even befriended a taxi driver named Rico, who drove more than two hours Sunday to attend the wake.

After arriving at Notre Dame, Wyn recalled, she had questioned her decision to attend the university. But now she knows she was meant to be there to spend time with her brother in his final months.

“I was one of the few lucky people who called their older brother one of their best friends,” Wyn said.

Funeral for Declan Sullivan

Friends, family members, players and school officials turned out for the funeral of Declan Sullivan.

Even while an Indiana state investigation was under way to determine if the university violated safety rules by having Sullivan film in such windy conditions, his sister emphasized that his life was to be celebrated, not mourned.

“No amount of anger or tears can change this,” she said.

Te’o’s attendance at the service was not surprising, because he has been particularly troubled by Sullivan’s death.

When Te’o met with the media Saturday after Notre Dame’s loss to Tulsa, he wore a white T-shirt bearing a logo similar to the shamrock decals with the letters “DS” that adorned the helmets of players from both teams in memory of Sullivan. Te’o’s voice cracked with emotion as he described the commitment of Sullivan and other Fighting Irish support staff like him.

“They sacrifice so much for our team,” Te’o said. “For some of us to not even know who they are, it really opened our eyes and woke us up to, ‘Hey, if you see somebody, say hi, see how they're doing and their day is going. Just check on them.’ ”

A Notre Dame official then stepped in to say Te’o would answer only one more question, but Te’o wasn't finished expressing his remorse for not having known Sullivan.

“It's no problem,” Te’o told the official as he continued talking.

Te’o compared the passion of Sullivan and the team’s other student support staff to legendary Notre Dame walk-on Rudy Ruettiger.

“They do it because they love what they're doing,” Te’o said. “They do it because they love being around us. They do it just because they want to help.”

Te’o’s voice again cracked with emotion as he struggled to keep his composure about Sullivan.

“I feel really bad that I didn't one day get to tell him, ‘Thank you for doing what you're doing,’ ” Te’o said. “I just wish I would have had Declan as one of my friends, too.”

Now, Notre Dame's football team finally knows Sullivan. And his death has already changed the perspective of some Fighting Irish players about their often forgotten support staff.

“You need to build a rapport with everyone,” Rees said. “We're one football family. Like a teammate, you've got to love and support them.”

After the service, Sullivan’s wooden casket was slid into a silver hearse. Later, after bells tolled, Kelly left in a black Ford Expedition that shone in the sun.

As he drove away, golden autumn leaves rustled in a tree across the street from the yellow-brick church. The wind then gusted, causing several of the leaves to drop softly to the ground.

Turns out the wind never forgets.

Tagged: Northwestern, Navy, Notre Dame, Buffalo, Manti Te'o, Brian Smith, Michael Floyd

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