New challenges await Vikings, Greenwich native Sullivan

Greenwich native and Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan (65) snaps the ball to quarterback Matt Cassel during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. — photo courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings

Greenwich native and Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan (65) snaps the ball to quarterback Matt Cassel during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. — photo courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings

There are a lot of changes going around the Minnesota Vikings this season. Whether it’s a new stadium to call home, a new coaching staff or new athletes trying to crack the starting roster, change is in the air during the National Football League training camp in Mankato, Minn.

However, one of the constants for the Vikings is at the center position: Greenwich native John Sullivan is at training camp getting prepped to start his seventh season with the club.

“It’s going great,” said Sullivan during an interview with the Post and HANradio’s Nutmeg Sports. “We have a new staff, so we are obviously learning a new offense with coach (Norv) Turner, but we are progressing really fast and are playing at a high level. We are expecting great things and we like what we see so far.”

Feeling great is music to Sullivan’s ears. Basically playing hurt all of last season while recovering from a microfracture on his knee, the Minnesota center said that he’s feeling really strong this training camp.

“I’m feeling good, a lot better than where I was a year ago with my knee,” Sullivan said. “Having the microfracture, you read literature where it says it can take two years before you feel normal. I feel much better this August than I did a year ago.”

Right now, training camp for Sullivan is all about improving on all the little things that comes with being a successful center, such as if his left hand is good, if his first step is solid, is he bringing his back foot when he’s reach blocking and is he punching with one hand or two hands.

For Sullivan, there’s a lot that goes into the technique.

“I want to go out and work on my technique and make sure I’m leading the right way and encouraging the younger players,” the 2012 First Team All-Pro said. “I need to work every single day, that’s what it comes down to. I want to be playing my best when the season starts. I have a good chance to do that because I have to play every single day.”

Out at Vikings training camp, there is a quarterback battle between veteran Matt Cassel, former Viking starting quarterback Christian Ponder and 2014 first round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater.

“It’s basically guys that are competing,” Sullivan said. “We have a talented quarterback group. Everybody is practicing well so far and we will see how it plays out over the course of the preseason. Whether that guy’s at quarterback, on the offensive line, running back or any position, everybody is competing for a job and the best player is the guy that’s going to play for us. We need the guys that are going to help us win the most games. I have enough to worry about playing center that I can’t worry about who is playing quarterback.”

Sullivan is laser focused on improving as a center.

“A lot of the time you’re identifying the middle linebacker,” Sullivan said. “Based on that identification, you know who everybody else is on the field in defense. That will tell you what your assignment is on any given play. The reason the center is responsible for that is because of all the offensive linemen, you’re in the middle and actually further up the field and you have a unique perspective to be able to see both sides of the field and therefore make the best decision on who to call the middle linebacker.”

In addition to working on his game, Sullivan and the rest of the team are learning a new system. Head coach Mike Zimmer is in his first year with the Vikings.

“He’s rough around the edges, no nonsense, hold every single guy accountable and he expects you to go out there and work hard and do your job, but at the same time, while he does get us out there and makes us work, he’s sensitive and takes care of us in terms of not putting too much wear and tear on our bodies,” Sullivan said. “The older guys appreciate that.”

One of the biggest changes for Sullivan and the Vikings will be extremely obvious when the season kicks off. The days of playing under the climate-controlled Metrodome are over. With demolition of the former Vikings home, work is underway to build the team a multi-purpose 65,400-seat stadium with a retractable roof and high quality HD video board.

With the new stadium set to open for the 2016 season, the Vikings will call TCF Bank Stadium, where the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers play, home.

“I think we are all very excited about the new stadium,” Sullivan said. “We’ve seen the progress of the construction at the old Metrodome site, but at the same time it’s a few years off. We are playing at TCF. It’s going to be beautiful early in the season and we completely understand that it’s going to get cold, but we are going to be acclimated in that weather. Hopefully our opponents won’t be and it will be a big advantage to us.”

While the Vikings will be playing a bunch of games outdoors in the elements, Sullivan said that the team will have little trouble getting used to the Minnesota winter.

“Being in Minnesota, we get used to walking to our cars every single day,” Sullivan said. “It shocks you. When the inside of your nose freezes in December when you’re walking out to your car, you understand that you’re in a whole new level of cold. We will get used to it just by living in the climate. It gets very cold here in the winter.”

While life is great in Minnesota, it still wasn’t home to the center. That is why Sullivan and his wife purchased a house in the Riverside section of Greenwich for the offseason. Being close to home or back in Minnesota, Sullivan still finds time to keep up on Greenwich High School athletics, especially his Big Red football team.

“I follow them throughout the course of the season,” Sullivan said. “While I have a lot going on over here, I am still very close to my friends from high school and the guys that I played football with. I am interested in what Greenwich High School is doing and I take a lot of pride in the high school and the high school having a successful football program. It’s a huge influence and a huge factor and I am not sure I would be here without it.”

And when it comes to Big Red football, it’s something that has obviously affected his life.

“We had a lot of guys that could have gone on and played at the college level and that’s just how it goes,” Sullivan said. “I was very fortunate to be a member of great teams, have great teammates and leadership when I was a younger player and try to pass those things on to the younger guys. That’s really the legacy of Greenwich High School. The guys that have played there understand what it’s like and understand that this is a program you can be proud of.”

When it comes to the Vikings, a moment of great pride for Sullivan was when he snapped the ball to NFL legend Brett Favre. This year, the Green Bay Packers will honor their longtime quarterback by inducting him into the Packers Hall of Fame.

Although Favre came from one of Minnesota’s greatest rivals, Sullivan has no problem saying how great it was to have the quarterback on the Vikings for two seasons.

“It was incredible,” Sullivan said. “We had a lot of success in 2009 and was better than the 2010 season, but I learned a lot from him. He played a long time and it was incredible to see a 40-year-old guy running around like he was a 13-year-old kid playing youth football. He brought a lot of exuberance onto the football field and to our team. To have my first starting job be to snap the ball to a Hall of Fame quarterback is incredible. I am so happy for Brett. He had an incredible career with the Packers and he has a rightful place in their Hall of Fame. There’s no doubt of that.”

Sullivan and the Vikings will start the preseason tomorrow night when they travel to TCF Bank Stadium and host the Oakland Raiders. In addition to the Raiders, the Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titan are on the preseason schedule. The Vikings open the regular season when they travel to St. Louis for a game against the Rams on Sept. 7.

While several people voice their opinion about how long the preseason is, Sullivan said that he thinks it’s a necessary evil.

“Nobody likes training camp, but we need to come out here and prepare,” Sullivan said. “The new CBA does a great job taking care of us, limiting what the coaches are allowed to do in terms of keeping us out on the football field for too long and putting too much wear and tear on your body. I don’t think training camp is too long. We need this amount of hitting regardless. If we’re not doing it in training camp, it’s going to be a part of the regular season, so it’s half a dozen, one or the other.”

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