People of the U: Tyler Sullivan
Published on Wednesday, October 9, 2019
By: Gary Pettus, email@example.com
On a medical mission in Haiti a few years ago, Tyler Sullivan noticed that patients who saw the doctor would leave with something they didn’t have before: “Hope.”
Until then, he had no career clearly in mind. “I had hoped I would figure it out,” said Sullivan, now a second-year medical student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
“Honestly, I was focused on football.”
And why not? The world of college football had focused on him.
As the quarterback for Delta State University in Cleveland in 2016, Sullivan was named one of the 12 finalists for The William V. Campbell Trophy, an honor that has been reserved for the best scholar-athletes in the nation, among them the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli.
“I lucked up,” Sullivan said.
If so, then “luck” ran interference for him often during his life in his hometown of Louisville, in high school at Winston Academy, in a stint at Northwest Community College and beyond. For his 2016-2017 academic year at Delta State, the biology major was a Gulf South Conference "Top Ten" award winner as one of the league’s leading scholar-athletes – for the second time.
His arm and feet left a mark in the Delta, wrapping up 9,684 yards of total offense, including 9,157 yards passing: statistics that placed Sullivan second on DSU’s all-time list. His 64.6 completion percentage was a career record for the Statesmen.
His senior year, Sullivan was his university’s nominee for the 2016 Campbell Trophy, sponsored by the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, becoming the first of two medical students here who have been put forward for the award: As a linebacker for Millsaps College, first-year student Steel Liles was a 2018 semifinalist.
The year Sullivan was nominated, Zach Terrell of Western Michigan University won the trophy and a $25,000 scholarship. But as a finalist, Sullivan received his own reward: $18,000 for post-graduate studies, which he brought with him to UMMC.
Just a couple of years earlier, medical school was not the kind of goal the quarterback had in mind.
“I thought medicine was reserved for people a lot smarter than I was,” he said.
Over the years, he had been exhorted and exhilarated by a long line of distinguished mentors: coaches, teachers, professors and “two wonderful grandfathers who taught me to do the right thing,” Sullivan said.
“My father has done the same.” Dan Sullivan, who sells lumber in Mississippi for a Louisiana-based company, also played sports, including baseball at Ole Miss. “He is the reason for my competitive drive,” said his son, who is also the nephew of the Ole Miss women’s basketball Hall of Famer Sheila Sullivan Hickman.
In his hometown, where Tyler’s sister Abby assists teachers with school children at Louisville Elementary, his mom, Valerie Sullivan, is a nurse practitioner. He was struck by the impact of her work, how patients turned to her for help. But a career in health care seemed beyond his reach.
The people of Haiti changed that. As did the people who took care of them.
“It wasn’t necessarily what was done there medically,” said Sullivan, one of several participants in his church’s medical mission then. “It was the way people were affected by getting to see a doctor, how they put so much faith and trust in someone.
“They believed this person was going to make them better. Seeing them leave with hope was probably the most profound thing that pushed me toward medicine. I decided I could do this, if I put my mind to it.”
While his mind today is much on medical school, he makes time for intramural sports, working out at the gym and tackling CrossFit training with a half dozen of his classmates. It all helps “fill that void of competition that football had met,” he said.
Football met other needs as well. At Delta State, the lessons he learned from Coach Todd Cooley “helped lay the foundation for being able to go out into a field other than football and do well,” Sullivan said
Before graduating from Delta State, he briefly explored another field as a 2017 Congressional Fellow, joining the staff of the late U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in Washington, D.C.
“I want to learn what it takes to be a valuable Mississippian like Sen. Cochran is,” Sullivan said at the time, “and how to make tough decisions that will affect many people.”
In a way, he was describing what it means to be what he once thought he never could be: a doctor.
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