SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- During their freshman year at Notre Dame, Shane Steinberg, Declan Sullivan and three other friends from section 4B in Fisher Hall entered a team in the school's famed Bookstore Basketball tournament. The largest outdoor five-on-five basketball tourney in the world, Bookstore stokes the fires of countless "Domers" who seek to evoke memories of their high school glory days.
But not all of them. Sullivan (pictured above, on left, with his sister Gwyneth and brother Mac) was one of the exceptions.
"It was a close game late in what you'd consider the second half and Declan was urging me to call a timeout," recalled Steinberg of their first-round contest in the event where the winner is the first team to 21.
"In the huddle, he pulls a cigar out of his pocket. The rest of the game he played point guard, puffing on the cigar as he dribbled up court."
On a campus that all too often can be its own homogeneous zone, Sullivan, the student videographer who died during football practice on Oct. 27 when the scissor lift from which he was filming toppled over onto a service road, was defiantly uncommon.
"To know Declan was to know someone who was truly original," said Steinberg, a junior from Fresh Meadows, N.Y., who is majoring in finance. "You encounter people here and you think, I've met you 42 times already, you just had a different face. But you never met anyone quite like Declan."
The two met on the very evening Steinberg arrived on campus in 2008. Steinberg, who was nursing strep throat and a 103-degree fever at the time, was sitting in his dorm room late that Sunday night when a stranger popped his head into the room.
"Hey, you wanna go to a party?" Sullivan asked.
"All right, man, next time," Sullivan said.
During that freshman O (for "orientation") week, Sullivan achieved legendary status among the Fisher frosh, according to Steinberg.
"He'd approach a group of girls, pick one out, and say, 'Hey, Katie, how you doin'?'" Steinberg said. "She'd say, 'My name's not Katie, it's Alison.' He'd apologize, but a couple of minutes later they were all friends. Declan knew a thousand girls before any of us knew 10."
The portrait that emerges of Sullivan, a film, television and theater major from Long Grove, Ill., is one of a dedicated non-conformist who reveled in his role as the Pied Piper. A film fanatic, Sullivan applied a quote from one of his favorite movies, "American Beauty," to his own existence: "There is nothing worse than being ordinary."
At a dorm dance, known on campus as an SYR (Screw Your Roommate) and specifically at Fisher as "The Funk," Sullivan, said Steinberg, "would sport a gold blazer and tiny glasses, looking like Elton John crossed with a mad scientist on crack."
Sullivan's film and concert reviews for the student newspaper, The Observer, almost always contained an expletive that he hoped to sneak past an editor ("The Roots' set, however, was (bleepin') epic."). His visits to an ATM would draw glances as he barked "Big money! Big money!" hoping against hope that a random $20 still remained in his account.
Any attempt to beatify Sullivan should be tempered with a remembrance that he was 20 years old and not averse to undergraduate revelry. As Steinberg wrote in a remembrance of him for The Observer, "When life gave him lemons, instead of making lemonade, he made vodka sour."
Mostly, though, among the friends who congregated in Room 443 of Fisher Hall (a four-man "quad," and hence the largest room in the section), Sullivan was the locus of energy and fun.
"We'd play five-on-five football in the hallway of Fisher," Steinberg said. "Full-speed, tackle. It was brutal. One guy broke his foot, another guy messed up his hip against a door knob. Declan quit playing. I asked him why.
"'When I have the football, it's not just the other team that's trying to tackle me,' he said. 'You're all trying to tackle me,'" Steinberg said with a laugh. "It's true. That's just how he was."
At the beginning of his sophomore year, Sullivan, an aspiring filmmaker, decided to apply to be a videographer for the football team. According to Steinberg, he was motivated by the desire to learn how to operate a camera and become more familiar with the technical side of the film-making.
"He tried to get me to join him, but I said no," Steinberg said. "It's a big-time commitment. I've thought a lot the past week, What if I had?"
On Oct. 27, Steinberg was on Skype with his girlfriend, a Notre Dame classmate who is studying abroad in London, when a friend told him that Declan had been involved in an accident at practice. Steinberg remembers joking, "If he has a broken arm, I'll sign his cast."
Soon the gravity of what had happened became apparent.
In the week since, Steinberg has alternated between the mundane moments of attending a 9:30 class the morning after his friend's death to breaking down and sobbing when the alma mater was sung at the end of Sullivan's memorial Mass at the Basilica.
"It's like being in a car that's smashing into a wall," he said. "It's that split-second between being aware that you're hitting the wall and waiting to feel the impact. Except that the split-second has extended all this time."
Steinberg (on left in photo, with Sullivan) never did follow his friend on Twitter, but he feels that the media in large part has grossly misrepresented those final two ominous tweets from Sullivan. The first one read, "Gusts of wind up to 60 mph. Well today will be fun at work. I guess I've lived long enough :)"
"Most journalists ignored the playfulness of the first one," Steinberg said. "I've seen them use it without the emoticon at the end. Just a day earlier, we were all joking about the tornado watch and how one never came. We were like, 'Screw you, tornado, at least be severe enough to cancel our 11 a.m. class.'
"I know that I wasn't up there on the lift with him," Steinberg said, "but knowing Declan, knowing his sense of humor, there was nothing fearful about those tweets."
On the other hand, Sullivan posted his last tweet more than 40 minutes before the lift toppled over. Whether he was texting anyone, perhaps the videographer atop the other scissor lift, in that final half-hour is something only those investigating his death know.
On the evening after Sullivan's death, after the campus gathered for Mass at the Basilica, Steinberg and about 10 friends, guys and girls, headed over to the Grotto, a popular outdoor place of prayer on campus. They kept vigil for their fallen friend for awhile. Then, with a case of warm "Nattys" (Natural Light beer) in hand, the group walked the short distance to St. Mary's Lake. It was well after midnight as they began toasting their friend.
"We told stories and it went on for two hours, even though it only seemed like 10 minutes," Steinberg recalled. "We became a family that night."
On Thursday afternoon, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly referred to practice as "a safe haven" in relation to the emotional anguish players and coaches have felt since that unforgettable afternoon. The irony in that phrase is, of course, palpable. For students on this bucolic campus, however, Notre Dame has always been just that. A safe haven. A cocoon, almost, against the harsh reality of the outside world.
That illusion was shattered when Declan Sullivan fell. What remains, for Shane Steinberg and others who knew him well, are wonderful memories of an impetuous friend. Of, as Steinberg wrote, "a soul wild at heart."
He will be missed.
Rest in peace, Declan Sullivan.