MINNEAPOLIS -- It was in April 2012 at the University of Minnesota's Amplatz Children's Hospital, shortly after former Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson had signed with the Tennessee Titans, that Hutchinson pulled center John Sullivan aside and asked him to take the mantle of leadership for the Vikings' work with the hospital.
Sullivan had been going to charity events there since his rookie season, following a player he looked to as a mentor on and off the field, and Hutchinson knew he needed to ask a current player to keep the relationship with the hospital strong now that he was leaving. Sullivan was an easy choice.
"He asked me at Amplatz, at their annual event, WineFest," Sullivan said. "I was sitting with him -- he knew he was going to Tennessee, and he said, 'They'd like to have a current player hosting the events. I'd love it if you could take over.' I learned a lot from Steve -- how to go about handling myself here, and this being the right thing to do. He deserves some credit for that."
Sullivan dove into the work to such a degree that on Tuesday, at Amplatz Children's Hospital, the Vikings named him their 2013 Community Man of the Year, making him a nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in February. Sullivan personally donated $150,000 toward the medically-friendly playground built in his name over the summer, has sponsored Halloween, Thanksgiving and December holiday parties over the past three years and is the celebrity chair for the hospital's golf event each year. On Tuesday, he hosted the 2013 holiday party with five other Vikings players -- quarterback Matt Cassel, punter Jeff Locke, wide receiver Jerome Simpson and offensive linemen Charlie Johnson, Matt Kalil and Kevin Murphy -- continuing a tradition passed to him by Hutchinson.
NFL teams are approached regularly with opportunities for charity work, and the Vikings are no different. But the relationship between a team and a charity tends to thrive when there's a player who's personally invested in it.
"There are so many great charities out there. There are so many things you want to do," Cassel said. "We get a lot of opportunities to go out to other guys' charities -- they might be passionate about something, where we might be more passionate about something else. But supporting each other -- because we've all been blessed to be put in this position to go and give back -- is a pretty special and unique opportunity for all of us."
Cassel has been involved with the NFL's Play 60 initiative to promote youth fitness since his time in Kansas City, and has continued his work there in Minnesota. That particular cause can travel with a player around the country, but something like a local children's hospital obviously cannot. In those cases, players often find a younger candidate to make sure the work continues after they're gone.
"Some of those charities, it's a great opportunity for guys to step in," Cassel said. "Maybe somebody's stepping out, and they need that void filled. John has done a remarkable job here, obviously."
Said Sullivan: "Just like I was here to support somebody hosting these events before, (my teammates) make this all possible. You need a lot of guys out here to support you and support this cause. It doesn't take much. It's a positive experience for everybody involved, so it's not a hard sell."