EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — As recently as last November, John Sullivan was the quiet, overlooked anchor in the middle of the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line.
Longtime standout guard Steve Hutchinson garnered a lot of the attention. Much of the spotlight and pressure went to Charlie Johnson in his first season as the Vikings left tackle. Meanwhile, Sullivan was busy doing his job, putting together perhaps his best season in the NFL and turning into one of the better centers in the league. Performing in anonymity suited Sullivan just fine, almost the way he preferred it.
But the Vikings knew what Sullivan was bringing to their offense, helping to lead one of the top rushing teams in the NFL. In December, near the end of his third year as a starter, Minnesota signed him to a 5-year, $25 million contract extension and more people started to take notice.
As quick as that, Sullivan is now the veteran leader in the middle of the Vikings line. Gone are guards Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera. Johnson has moved one spot to the right to make room for No. 4 overall draft pick, left tackle Matt Kalil. Phil Loadholt, who entered the starting lineup the same year as Sullivan, is at right tackle, while Brandon Fusco and Geoff Schwartz will compete to start at right guard.
Sullivan, 26, assumes his role as the man in the middle and as the leader of an offensive line in transition.
“I had played center for a long time, so in terms of on the field, I was comfortable from the start,” Sullivan said last week at organized team activities. “As a leader of a position group on this team, it’s a little different. You try to go out there and lead by example and only speak up when you need to.”
The coaches are looking to the unassuming Sullivan as a leader, however he manages the task. With the changes of the offensive line around him and quarterback Christian Ponder starting his second year, Sullivan’s steady play and leadership will be needed more than ever.
He’s embraced the relationship between center and quarterback, spending a lot of time this offseason with Ponder. He’s trying to serve as a role model for his younger offensive line mates, especially the rookie Kalil and Fusco, a second-year player looking to win his first starting spot.
“John is a guy we’re really counting on from a leadership standpoint,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “He was rewarded, as you know, this past season with a good contract and because of how he has matured on the football field. He’s really come along and he’s begun to accept that role as a leader. We saw it last season and his performance has continually gotten better. As long as he can avoid the nagging injuries, he’s an outstanding football player. Now you combine that with his experience and his leadership, he has tremendous value for our team.”
Sullivan and Loadholt both entered the starting lineup in 2009. Loadholt was the second-round draft pick slated to start immediately in his rookie year. Sullivan meanwhile paid his dues behind six-time Pro Bowler and the more outspoken Matt Birk. When Birk left for the Baltimore Ravens as a free agent, Minnesota handed the starting spot to Sullivan.
Sullivan responded, starting every game and helping quarterback Brett Favre and the Vikings’ offense rank fifth in the league in 2009. He fought through a calf injury in 2010 to start 14 games. Last year, he started all 15 games he played, missing Week 7 against the Green Bay Packers because of a concussion.
Sullivan, entering just his fifth season with Minnesota, is one of the veterans in the locker room now. Only six players have been with the Vikings longer than Sullivan; Kevin Williams, Chris Kluwe, Chad Greenway, Brian Robison, Fred Evans and Eric Frampton. Only Williams, Greenway and Robison are Minnesota draftees that have stuck around longer than Sullivan. Drafted in the sixth round in 2008, Sullivan and Letroy Guion are the only two draft picks still around from that year. Jared Allen came over in a 2008 trade and Erin Henderson was signed as an undrafted rookie.
“It’s nuts,” Sullivan said about his newfound veteran status. “I feel like it was just yesterday I was drafted at the end of the sixth round. But, at the same time, we’ve had some ups. We’ve had some downs. It’s time for some more ups.”
One of the biggest offseason changes after last year’s 3-13 record was the offensive line. Sullivan, a Notre Dame guy through and through, was a big proponent of drafting Kalil, a Southern Cal player, saying he’s a “Vikings” guy now. Fusco also credits Sullivan as a mentor while preparing to win his first starting assignment in the NFL.
Sullivan likes what he has seen in the rebuilt offensive line. But just as important could be his work with Ponder, the team’s unquestioned starter and the hope for a franchise quarterback. The two have spent a lot of time this offseason, whether it’s been fishing, out on Sullivan’s boat, or just relaxing at home. Inevitably, the topic comes back to football.
“The good thing about the relationship that we have is we’re able to talk things through all the time,” Ponder said. “He’s such a smart guy. He really understands the game, and that’s important for me and the center as well. So, getting on the same page on a lot of things and talking through things. Not only on the field, but when we’re hanging out at the house we end up talking ball a lot.”
And Sullivan keeps making the transition from quiet middle man of the offensive line to veteran leader of the Vikings’ offense.