In Focus: Stephen Sullivan
Over all else, Stephen Sullivan understands the value of finding a home.
That’s because, at times growing up, he didn’t have one.
The youngest of four brothers, LSU’s senior pass catcher spent his childhood shuttling back and forth between Texas and Donaldsonville, La. Some nights, he had a bed to sleep in. Some nights, he didn’t.
“I’ve stayed under a bridge before,” he says. “I’ve stayed in a hotel before. I didn’t know where my next meal was going to come from before. It was hard.”
Sullivan doesn’t like to talk about those times, or think about them really. For years, he blocked them out, the pain too powerful to deal with.
Sports became his escape, though, a shelter at a time when he desperately needed one. The 6-foot-7 Sullivan always had height and athleticism, taking quickly to the basketball court and the football field. When he had nowhere else to stay, coaches and teachers took him in, encouraging him to take care of his grades and stay out of trouble outside of school, because he had the talent to go anywhere.
That talent brought him to LSU, which seemed to Sullivan like an unknown world when he arrived as a freshman. Campus housing was like living in luxury. Cost of attendance stipends made him feel like a millionaire. It was more than he’d ever imagined.
“When I was growing up, I never really had my own room,” he says. “Once I got here, they gave me my own apartment, and they gave me my own room, and they put some money in my pocket. I felt like I was rich. I felt like I was on top of the world. I felt like nothing could stop me.”
Only then did Sullivan realize the flip-side of this new world. Greater accommodation came with greater responsibility. He’d moved up. Now it was time to grow up.
“When I first got here, I didn’t know where to get books,” he says. “I didn’t know where to eat. I didn’t know where (team) meeting was. So I grew up, and I learned.”
The lessons came slowly but surely, and so did his production. As a freshman, he played in eight catch-less games, but by his sophomore season, he’d emerged as a legitimate threat in the passing game, grabbing 11 passes for 209 yards and starting eight of 13 games for the Tigers.
His junior season showed even more progress, as Sullivan finished with 23 receptions for 363 yards, developing into the second-leading receiver on the team despite moving from outside to slot and even getting some looks at tight end.
“They moved me around a lot last year, but I wasn’t really bought into it last year,” he says. “I wasn’t bought into the position. I wasn’t really confident at it. I really wasn’t feeling it.”
Then, Joe Brady arrived, and the Tigers’ new receivers coach and passing game coordinator brought with him, from his time with the New Orleans Saints, film. Sullivan watched and gave two thumbs up.
“As I’m watching film on it, he’s feeding me some stories how this person thrived in the offense, how that person thrived, and he showed me some film on Jimmy Graham,” Sullivan says. “He’s getting the ball, and he really is not doing too much blocking. And I’m thinking, Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, I could do that.”
Brady’s message was simple: This move could change your career.
The move took time to pay off, but after two touchless games to start the 2019 season, Sullivan caught fire in games three and four for the Tigers, with seven catches on seven targets for 99 yards at tight end.
“This offense is crazy,” Sullivan says. “It’s my first time ever being around something like it.”
Of all the routes Sullivan has run so far in his career, the route that matters most to him is the one he traveled in August: across the graduation stage to receive his diploma. He’s proud to admit it’s the most important reception of his career.
“It’s probably one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve had in my life,” he says. “Being the first in my family to graduate from high school and to graduate from college is huge man. It’s probably one of the best days of my life I’ll never forget.”
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) August 2, 2019
Sullivan hopes to turn his degree into a business in the future, but for now, he’s focused on football, and his role with the offense is only growing. Injuries at receiver has Ed Orgeron looking at moving Sullivan back to his old position, at least in some packages.
“He’s got a big catch radius,” Orgeron says of Sullivan. “He’s been in big games. He’s hard to cover one-on-one. He runs good routes. I just think it’s going to be his time, and I think he’s going to play well.”
Receiver or tight end, it doesn’t matter for Sullivan. He’s found in LSU’s offense as a senior the same thing he found in LSU’s accommodations as a freshman: a home. To Sullivan, nothing could mean more.