Greenwich High alum, Minnesota Viking center Sullivan ready to tackle 2012 NFL season

Coming off a standout season with the Minnesota Vikings in 2011, Greenwich native and Greenwich High School football standout John Sullivan is looking for a better campaign this time around.

With a solid training camp nearly in the books, both Sullivan and the Vikings are ready to kick off the 2012 season.

“I am very fired up and kind of happy training camp is over and the games are going to count soon,” Sullivan said. “It’s good to get back into the swing of things again, but I’m ready to start playing real games that count on the record. I’m looking forward to a very successful 2012 season.”

Since being drafted by Minnesota back in 2008, Sullivan has missed only three starts in his three seasons as a starter with the Vikings. However, that doesn’t mean he was playing at 100% all the time. With bad calfs, an ankle surgery and an appendectomy, Sullivan has been in some pain while snapping the pigskin.

That seems to all in the past. After a healthy 2011 season, Sullivan has emerged as one of the premier centers in the National Football League.

“We had some great coaching and I fit in well with our offensive scheme that came in with Coach ‘Musgrave and Coach Davidson,” Sullivan said. “This year I am focusing on stepping into more of a leadership role off the field. I want to play well, all the time. I’ve been working on my technique and continuously try to improve. I don’t want to let aspects of my game slip. It’s important to get better each and every day.”

The Vikings are going to have a good mix of youth and veteran leadership on its offensive line. In addition to Sullivan at center, the Vikings will have Phil Loadholt at right tackle and former Indianapolis Colts Charlie Johnson at left tackle.

“I think we’ve definitely improved from last year,” Sullivan said. “There are some young guys, but we also have three guys that have a lot of NFL experience. We have a lot of starts and have played a lot of big games under our belts. Phil Loadholt has played in the NFC championship game and Charlie Johnson played in the Super Bowl. We got some experienced guys.”

One of the newcomers to the offensive line is the fourth overall pick in April’s NFL draft. Playing left tackle will be University of Southern California’s Matt Kalil. Joining Kalil on the line will be Brandon Fusco, who was drafted 171st overall in 2011 out of Slippery Rock University and played in three games last year for the Vikings. Sullivan believes both will make an impact.

“Matt helps us become younger, more athletic, hungrier and it’s great that he gets to play next to Charlie (Johnson), who played that position before,” Sullivan said. “It eases him in that transition to the NFL. Fusco is another guard, who is a young, physical player and is a guy that really cares about getting better and learning our offense. He is self-motivated and likes to go out there and better himself every day. If he makes a mistake, he goes out and corrects it and wants to do everything right.”

Overall, Sullivan thinks his offensive line has been constantly improving on its identity and cohesion during the preseason.

“You need experience playing next to certain guys so you get to know how they are going to react and to build chemistry,” Sullivan said. “The offensive line is going to be a physical group and will also play smart. We want to go out there and dominate the line of scrimmage every time we play. I also want them to enjoy themselves while playing in games.”

Sullivan will be snapping the ball this year to Christian Ponder, who was the Florida State University quarterback and drafted 12th overall in the 2011 draft. Ponder threw his first NFL pass during a game against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 16 and Sullivan said that the person he will snap the pigskin to has dramatically improved his game during the offseason.

“He’s progressed so much in a year’s time,” Sullivan said. “He’s done a great job this preseason leading our first offense out there. He’s putting points on the board. Obviously there is room for improvement, like there is with anybody at any position, but he’s doing an incredible job so far and we have his back 100%.”

In addition to snapping the pigskin to Ponder, Sullivan will once again help pave the way for standout running back Adrian Peterson to gain key yards. Peterson tore his MCL and ACL in a game against the Washington Redskins last December. However, on Tuesday, the running back got the word that he could participate in contact drills during practice.

“Toby Garrett has done a great job stepping up since Adrian has been out, but at the same time we are obviously a much better team with Adrian,” Sullivan said. “He’s the best running back in the league. Injuries are a part of football and it hasn’t been a focus of ours. While what Adrian does to recover and his treatment schedule are Adrian’s and the coaching staff’s business, we are really looking forward to having him back.”

Another huge help for the success of the Minnesota offensive line, and the team in general, is the coaching staff, which will be going into the second season together. Leslie Frazier was named head coach of the Vikings for the final six games of the 2010 and returned for the entire 2011 campaign. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave joined Minnesota in January 2011 and both Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave are now entering their second full season with the team.

“That continuity is huge in terms of learning the offense and executing,” Sullivan said. “When you’re trying to learn new terminology and a new scheme, it tends to slow people down. It’s been great so far because we are executing the game plan that was given to us by Coach Musgrave, Coach Davidson and the rest of the coaching staff. It’s a big improvement over last year and that’s to be expected. We were able to jell as a team during the offseason and we spent a full season in that offense a year ago.”

While Sullivan has been hard at work on the field improving his game, he’s also been working hard on improving the fan experience for the Minnesota faithful.

Playing in one of the oldest stadiums in the NFL, the Vikings have been locking horns with the Minnesota legislature for years in an attempt to build a state-of-the-art stadium and keep the Vikings in Minnesota.

When the air-supported roof of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome collapsed on the Dec. 11, 2010, due to a severe winter storm that blanketed the state, the Vikings were homeless and forced to play a home game against the New York Giants at Detroit’s Ford Field and the remainder of its home games at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium. The roof incident, along with the lease on the Metrodome expiring in 2011, made an even greater push on bringing a new stadium to the city of Minneapolis.

“We have great fans and love playing at the Metrodome, but it was time for a stadium upgrade,” Sullivan said. “Everybody knows that. The greatest thing about playing in the Metrodome is the fans, not the building. It will be even better with the new building. The fans deserve it and it benefits a lot of people.”

Mission accomplished for Sullivan and the rest of the Vikings’ organization. This past May, the Minnesota legislature approved funding for the $975-million stadium that will be built at the same location that the Metrodome currently resides.

“I was fortunate enough to get involved with our push to get the stadium passed,” Sullivan said. “I went over to the capital a couple of times and spoke with some of our state representatives and Gov. [Mark] Dayton. It was an incredible experience and I am happy that the stadium bill has passed. It was the right call. The Minnesota Vikings deserve to stay here in Minnesota. Because the state legislature stepped up and got the bill passed, that’s the way it’s going to remain.”

The season officially gets underway Sunday, Sept. 9, when Minnesota hosts Jacksonville at 1.

“We have made great strides,” Sullivan said. “I have been on successful teams and have been on teams that have gone 3-13. It’s hard to predict this early in the year because the difference between a 12-4 season and a 3-13 season isn’t as much as people think. We put the work in so that we can be successful and go back to the playoffs.”

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