NEWBURYPORT — Before Friday’s season opener against Triton, Newburyport football captains Trevor Foley, Trevor Ward and Charlie Cahalane walked out to meet their opponents for the pre-game coin toss. Joining them in spirit was Kevin Sullivan, the former Newburyport High quarterback whose No. 22 jersey Cahalane carried with him to midfield.
“He was a record-holder at Newburyport High School and a legend here,” said Cahalane, the junior quarterback. “This season is honored to him.”
Newburyport is dedicating its season to Sullivan, the former Newburyport High football star who died unexpectedly at age 60 in March. Sullivan, who graduated in 1976 and was a first-ballot Newburyport Wall of Famer in 1996, was a three-sport all-star who excelled at football, basketball and baseball during his time with the Clippers.
As a football player, Sullivan was one of the most successful quarterbacks in Newburyport High history. As a senior in 1975 he led the Clippers to an undefeated season and a Super Bowl title, and during his career he passed for 1,159 yards and 16 touchdowns. To this day he remains the program’s all-time leader in rushing yards by a quarterback (839 with 14 touchdowns).
After graduating, Sullivan went on to enjoy a decorated college career at UMass Amherst, where he switched positions and became one of the program’s all-time greats as a defensive back. His 14 career interceptions and 201 interception return yards remain in the top 10 in program history, and perhaps none of those were bigger than the 59-yard pick six he had against Nevada in the 1978 Division I-AA national semifinal, helping punch the team’s ticket to the national championship game.
Sullivan came home to Newburyport after college to start his family, and in the decades since he got to watch as his three kids and many of his numerous nieces and nephews grew to become great athletes themselves. His sons Sean and Kevin Sullivan Jr. are both among Newburyport High’s all-time leading scorers, and both were also close with current Newburyport coach Ben Smolski, who invited Sean to speak to his team last Thursday prior to the opener.
“I wanted to make sure they understood what my dad stood for. Dedicating the season is a big deal, so I wanted to make sure it was meaningful for them,” said Sean Sullivan, who graduated in 2001 and ranks No. 5 on the program’s all-time leading rushing list with 1,733 career yards.
Sean said he told the players about his dad and his accomplishments, but also about the unique level of character he had. The late Sullivan was once said to be a “100-percenter,” or the type of person who could walk into a room and 100% of people would like them, and he also had a level of toughness that allowed him to thrive even against those who might have been more talented overall.
“I’ve talked to his coaches over the years and they always talk about how tough he was. I’m sure he was playing against better athletes, but he was as good a cornerback as anyone,” Sean said. “Obviously it’s important to be athletic, but being tough can outlast being athletic, and to let them know that when they’re in the game, they can reach deep and out tough someone and that will help them win the game.”
The message clearly resonated, as Newburyport played a more complete all-around game than at any point last season to pick up a decisive 38-14 win over rival Triton. Smolski said afterwards that the team will continue to pay tribute to Sullivan the rest of the season, and he was grateful to have the opportunity to honor the Clipper legend in a meaningful way.
“It’s such an honor to have such deep tradition with the Sullivan family,” Smolski said. “It’s a great night for celebration and it’s even better tonight with the celebration in his memory.”
Heir to the throne?
During his time at Newburyport High, Kevin Sullivan was renowned as a dual-threat quarterback, and he remains the program’s all-time leader in rushing yards by a quarterback with 839. That record may not last much longer, however, as junior quarterback Charlie Cahalane has already posted 409 career rushing yards since taking over as the starting quarterback late last September.
Cahalane was the area’s top runner in Week 1, posting 92 yards against Triton, and is on pace to easily break the record and become the first Newburyport quarterback to reach 1,000 yards rushing, both in a career and possibly in a single-season. Newburyport coach Ben Smolski said that before Sullivan died, he’d expressed hope Cahalane might be able to pull it off, and that he would have been proud to have the junior tri-captain carry his jersey before each game.
“Kevin Sullivan last year said ‘that Charlie Cahalane, he could be good,’” Smolski said. “He’d want him to hold that jersey.”