Beating the odds: Sullivan shines brightly in athletic, professional careers

David Sullivan defied the odds to become one of the best receivers in University of Virginia history and a professional football receiver for the Cleveland Browns.

His career – both athletically and professionally – is so bright that sunglasses should be required.

Sullivan succeeded in both through faith, dedication, believing in himself and believing in teammates. Those are the hallmarks of success for Sullivan, whose accolades on and off the playing fields is a success story worth hearing and make him one of the greatest overachieving athletes in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, high school football history.

He was a 6-foot, 165-pound senior at Steelton High School when his high school coached moved him from running back to flanker. He quickly adapted to the position, learning to run pass routes with proficiency. Sullivan’s soft hands and speed made him an instant success and paved the way for an improbable career.

Dave Sullivan was a record-smashing receiver at the University of Virginia. That helped him play two years in the NFL with the Browns.

In his first season as a prep receiver, Sullivan caught 35 passes for 672 yards and five touchdowns during Steelton’s 1967 season. A star was born and he caught the eye of the University of Virginia, which overlooked his frame and looked into the heart. They signed him to a college scholarship, believing they had found a diamond in the rough.

He became a rare find as Sullivan’s intellect and determination to succeed would take him all the way to the National Football League. He proved himself invaluable on the college level, becoming an AP honorable mention All-American and first-team Atlantic Coast Conference wide receiver his senior year at the University of Virginia. Some have called him one of the greatest players in school history. The first-team All-America wide receiver in Sullivan’s senior year was Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, proving he was in good company. He may have moved further up the All-America ladder had the Cavaliers produced a winning season.

Sullivan led the ACC in catches and receiving yards, becoming the only Virginia all-league player that season. He had 51 catches for 662 yards and seven touchdowns – all top marks for Virginia receivers in a single season – despite a revolving door of quarterbacks at Virginia. He was often the player that opposing defenses tried to take away but his uncanny route running ability and good hands overcame many double-teams.

For his career, Sullivan amassed 120 catches for 1,568 yards and 12 touchdowns, the first two setting Virginia records. He played in the Blue-Gray and Senior All-Star Games and began to draw the attention of professional scouts.

Another characteristic for Sullivan was his leadership abilities. Even though he was one of the best receivers in college football in 1972, teammates saw the same man they knew when he entered college. He was humble and generous – traits that would serve him well later in the business world. Sullivan was a winner who he did it within the team concept. He took that same attitude into his professional life after football was no longer an option.

When Sullivan was entering his senior year of high school, he wasn’t on anybody’s recruiting radar. But once he was moved to flanker and worked relentlessly to learn the position, not even his small frame or age was a deterrent. When he signed out of high school to Virginia, he was only 16 years old. He worked hard in the classroom too, ranking 22nd in a class of 152 in 1968.

By the time he was a senior at Virginia, he was 6-foot and 185 pounds – a far cry from the 155-pound receiver that went mostly unwanted by most major colleges. His size and speed – he ran 40 yards in 4.7 seconds – was under the radar by most pro scouts. But few in college ran routes better or had better hands than Sullivan, giving him a chance to become an NFL player.

Sullivan has been defying odds since he was a slender 115-pound sophomore trying to make the varsity at Steel-High. Two years later college after college passed on him because he was too small for their programs. All except for Virginia, which found a playmaking receiver.

Cleveland took Sullivan late in the 1973 NFL Draft, taking him in the 15th round. That didn’t deter him from believing he could make the team and contribute or even start. He played in seven NFL games, starting three and would have had a much longer career if not for a third knee surgery that proved to be too much. He caught five passes for 92 yards in his two-year career with the Browns.

In his finest game with the Browns, he caught two passes for 52 yards from Brian Sipe in a 26-16 loss to the Steelers. Sullivan was being defended by Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount in that game at Cleveland Stadium in 1974.

His degree from Virginia was in educational psychology, but he quickly learned the business side of the death care business. He liked the competitiveness aspect along with the traits of strong character, integrity and compassion with the customer.

He joined Gibraltar Mausoleum Corp. in Indianapolis in 1977 and rose to become the executive vice president of sales and marketing. He stayed with that company for 18 years. Sullivan has 47 years in the sales and marketing end of the business and formed Saber Management in January 1998.

He was named the 2002 Ernst & Young Heartland, Indiana, Entrepreneur of the Year and led Saber Management to even bigger successes over the next 15 years before selling to Park Lawn Corp. in 2017 for $65 million.

Sullivan is also recognized for his philanthropy. He has been a consistent and generous donor to the nonprofit Amy For Africa, a Christian organization in Uganda, since 2014 – not only through his businesses but personally with wife, Sara. He has also been involved in many other charities promoting needs for children and others in need through both his business contributions and personally.

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