Positive Attitude Has Helped Make 'Sully' an OLHS Legend
Passion for sports and the ability to lead and mentor have made Skip Sullivan one of Oak Lawn's all-time winners. In recent years, he has battled Parkinson's disease.
During his impressive athletic career at Oak Lawn High School, Skip Sullivan never missed a game in his four years as a three-sport standout.
He did, however, miss the final inning of his last baseball game.
“I collided with the shortstop going for a popup and broke my leg,” Sullivan vividly remembers. “It happened the day before prom, two days before graduation and the day I got my letter of intent to play (football) at Iowa State. Talk about fate. I was scared to death.”
Little did Sullivan know at the time, but the freak injury ultimately played a major role in the type of coach he would one day become.
Worried about how the setback would affect his scholarship, Sullivan was called into the office of Iowa State football coach Johnny Majors for what turned out to be a conversation the 1969 Oak Lawn graduate would never forget.
“Johnny Majors told me, ‘You have a four-year scholarship here. You don’t have to play one down to keep your scholarship. All you need to do is give your best effort academically, be part of the team and work as hard as you can.’ He told me not to worry about the scholarship and just relax and get ready to play,” Sullivan says.
“Johnny Majors really helped teach me a life lesson, and I’ll never forget that day. He helped me keep things in perspective and to not worry about things you can’t control. He taught me about how to handle adversity, how to be a humble winner and gracious loser. Everything comes down to what kind of character a person has.”
Those encouraging words from Majors, a College Football Hall of Famer who was a Heisman Trophy runner-up to Notre Dame legend Paul Hornung in 1956 as a triple-threat tailback at the University of Tennessee, not only eased Sullivan’s mind at the time, but resonated with him throughout the years.
Sullivan had to redshirt his freshman season at Iowa State because of the injury, but he went on to play football and baseball his junior and senior seasons.
Home Sweet Home
Sullivan returned to his alma mater and began teaching at Oak Lawn High School in 1973. He started coaching baseball in 1980 and became the head coach in 1994. He compiled a 268-177 record in 14 seasons, guided the Spartans to two conference championships and won more than 20 games in a season eight times. Sullivan also coached football and basketball for the Spartans through the years.
His success on the baseball diamond culminated with his induction into the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2009.
“That was a pleasant surprise,” he says. “I was fortunate to coach against a lot of great guys and developed quite a rivalry with some of them. I was humbled by getting that reward. It’s the pinnacle of your whole career. It made the days when you go out in 30-degree weather to rake the field trying to get ready to play all worth it when you get voted in by your peers.
“I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into athletics at Oak Lawn.”
Sullivan retired from teaching in 2006 and continued as part-time athletic director and head baseball coach until 2008. Now 59, he has been involved in athletics at Oak Lawn for more than 40 years as a player and coach and just completed his 10th season as the assistant coach to Oak Lawn varsity girls basketball head coach Janet Haubenreiser.
“I am lucky to have someone like Skip as a coach,” Haubenreiser says. “He was one of my teachers when I went to Oak Lawn and one of my mentors when I came back to teach. I was a young head coach when he became my assistant, and it was great to have someone with his knowledge and experience sitting next to me on the bench during games and with me at practice.
“He has taught me a lot,” Haubenreiser says. “He has taught me how to get the most out of our players and every year he makes it our goal to overachieve. People don’t want to let him down, and even after all these years, I still don’t want to disappoint him.
“Sully is a very special person. He has a positive effect on everyone he comes in contact with. He can always find something nice to say and it is always very genuine. He has a special gift when it comes to interacting with people. He is truly a legend at Oak Lawn High School as a teacher and coach. He has touched so many lives, it is truly amazing.”
Living a Dream
Before embarking on his coaching career, Sullivan relished his playing days at Oak Lawn.
“I remember growing up, I went to all the (high school) games,” Sullivan says. “I couldn’t wait to be a Spartan. My dream came true.”
Sullivan was the quarterback on the football team, passing for more than 3,000 yards during his career when football was a run-dominated sport. He was a guard on the basketball team and pitched, played outfield and infield on the baseball team.
“I was fortunate enough to be a three-sport player at Oak Lawn,” he says. “I feel really sorry for the kids today that have to specialize in one sport. There’s no need to do that. I couldn’t wait to go from one sport to another. I had so many highlights in basketball and baseball and I was in a great situation in football. I got to pass the ball a lot. Oak Lawn was one of the first schools that threw the ball a lot. It was kind of rare to throw the ball back then. I was fortunate to be a passer. It was a lot of fun.”
Sullivan doesn’t understand why athletes are pressured to focus on one sport these days—something he has never encouraged his players to do.
“All the winning teams we’ve had at Oak Lawn were when we had multi-sport athletes on the team. I felt the best athletes were the all-around players,” he says. “A lot of kids have come back to me 10 years later and said I never should’ve quit baseball or football. It was the worst mistake of their lives. I would always tell the kids high school is the best years of your life and you should enjoy it.”
Coaching was something Sullivan knew he wanted to do at an early age.
Like many boys growing up, Sullivan wanted to be a Major League Baseball player, but he had a backup plan just in case that didn’t work out.
“It’s funny. My mother kept a paper I wrote in sixth grade about what I wanted to be in life. I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player and if I couldn’t do that I wanted to be a coach and teacher,” Sullivan says. “I never wavered in what I wanted to be. I was a lucky guy that I was able to coach and teach young people my whole career. It’s so gratifying helping and seeing young kids have success along the way.”
Both of Sullivan’s children played sports at Oak Lawn. His son, Mike, played basketball and baseball, earning all-conference honors as a pitcher on his dad’s team in 2001. His daughter, Dana, was a three-sport athlete like her father, playing volleyball, basketball and softball. She also played basketball at Benedictine University in Lisle.
A Whole New Ballgame
Sullivan’s family, including his wife Patti, have helped him deal with one of the biggest challenges of his life.
Sullivan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2005.
“Everything is going well with it,” Sullivan says. “Athletics have helped me fight this every day because you never quit. Having a positive attitude can make an amazing day out of an ordinary day. I’ve had great support from my family and friends. I certainly try to look for good things in life because that’s the best medicine.”
In 2009, the Sully Shuffle 5K run/3K walk was created in honor of Sullivan. The organization is committed to raising funds to assist in the fight against Parkinson disease.
The event raised $25,000 in its first year and $30,000 last year.
“There’s been tremendous support not just from Oak Lawn, but the South Side,” Sullivan says. “It’s very humbling to see what people will do for you. You hear about a lot of negative things in the news, but there are so many great people in this world. The people that have supported this cause have given me a lot of inspiration.”
Patti Sullivan is not surprised at all by how courageously her husband is dealing with his disease.
“He’s so inspiring,” she says. “He’s always had such a positive attitude with everyone. His glass is always half full and not half empty, and that is how he is tackling his Parkinson’s. It’s amazing and I’m very proud of him.
“It’s been a great ride. It’s a lot of fun to watch him work with all the different athletes and how enthusiastic he always is. You can see the effect he’s had on kids because they come back and tell him how much he’s meant to them.”
Sullivan still plays basketball two or three times a week with a group of buddies at Oak Lawn.
“With this disease, sometimes the harder you work, the more normal you feel,” Sullivan says. “I play with the same group of guys and we still all argue like kids. It helps keep you young.”