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George Sullivan Names Three ‘Toughest Huskers Ever’

He was a servant to the athletes, the players’ advocate to the coaches and a pioneer in the field of athletic training and physical therapy.

George Finley Sullivan, known simply as “Sully” to most Nebraska football players, coaches and fans, stood with his family on Memorial Stadium’s turf last Saturday for two reasons:

1.     The night before, Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne officially re-dedicated the “George Sullivan Training Room” inside the Osborne Complex Athletic Medicine Facility; and

2.     In a pregame, on-field ceremony, the Nebraska Touchdown Club presented its first annual Sullivan Scholarship to senior receiver Todd Peterson.

Sullivan and Peterson didn’t have time to chat, but, oh the stories Nebraska’s legendary trainer could tell the Grand Island walk-on who has become a model Husker student-athlete.

Peterson needed five stitches under his chin when he caught a Virginia Tech player wrong on an intense punt return. That would be routine stuff for Sully, who served as Nebraska’s assistant athletic trainer and head physical therapist from 1953-77 before becoming head athletic trainer in ‘77 and retiring in ‘95.

Sully first stepped inside Nebraska’s training room in 1948 as a student, giving him nearly a half-century view of NU’s storied program.

Asked to name the all-time toughest Huskers, three players came immediately to Sully’s mind:

·         Tom Novak, Nebraska’s All-American center and only four-time, first-team all-conference player. His No. 60 jersey was the only officially retired Nebraska football jersey for 55 years. Since then, 15 more Husker players have that same distinction. “I remember when UCLA played here in 1948,” Sullivan recalled. “I had to tape Tom’s broken ribs. He’d exhale a bit in pain, but then go right back in the game. That’s the way he was all the way around. You couldn’t keep him off the field. They called him ‘Train Wreck’ because absolutely nothing could stop him. ”

·         Rik Bonness, Nebraska’s two-time All-America center. He also made first-team Academic All-American before becoming a linebacker and special teams player for five seasons with Oakland and Tampa Bay. “I remember when Rik broke the metacarpal bone on his right hand against Iowa State,” Sullivan recalled. “It was sticking straight up, so he kept hiding from me. He was determined that he was going to play, so we put a tongue blade over the top and taped his hand. He snapped the ball that way the rest of the game . . . tough guy . . . really tough.”

·         Clete Pillen, the walk-on linebacker who ranks fifth on Nebraska’s career tackle chart. “Clete got whacked on his knee the second play of the game at Oklahoma,” Sullivan said, recalling a 1975 contest when the Sooners handed the 10-0 Huskers their first loss. “He had a severely sprained knee, but wanted back in the game, so I taped him up. He finished with a record 26 tackles, but could hardly walk out the door.” A year later, Clete broke his own single-game record with 30 tackles in a 14-10 win over Oklahoma State – a school record that still stands after 32 years.

With George Sullivan, You’ve Always Got a Friend

Osborne says Sullivan would be the one to know Nebraska’s toughest all-time players.

“Something the media and most people don’t understand is how much appreciation the players have for their trainers,” Osborne said. “They have a lot of loyalty to their coaches, but an even greater affection for the people who took care of them. They’d say things to George that they wouldn’t say to a coach. Trainers don’t make you run wind sprints or demote you to third team. George listened and always had a good feel for what the players were thinking. He didn’t betray confidences, but if he felt the attitude wasn’t right or something was out of kilter, he’d let you know. That input was always very valuable. That’s why he was in our staff meetings every morning at 7. We trusted him just like a coach. He did a great job.”

Former Academic All-American and team captain Pat Clare, now chief of staff and orthopedic surgeon for the Nebraska Athletic Department, remembers meeting Sullivan his freshman year in 1958. “You’re a little nervous when you come to the big campus from a smaller area,” Clare said. “George was our trainer and therapist. He was a smart guy who was extremely dedicated and really knew how to handle things. He was almost a servant to the athlete. He was always there, always available. Anything the athlete needed, he would take care of.”

Clare agrees with Osborne. “I know when I was in the military and in med school, I’d come back every two or three years,” he said. “I really didn’t go looking for my coaches as much as I’d go looking for George. Last fall, a bunch of our lettermen from the early ‘60s came back – Noel Martin, Gary Toogood, Mick Tingelhoff and Gene Ward. We were all sitting at Valentino’s eating, and every one talked about Sully. They made sure they were going to see him the next day. Their trip wasn’t complete unless they could meet up again with their trainer . . . and it’s been more than 45 years since we played.”

Last April, George Haney, a three-year letterman tackle who last played in ‘61, flew to Lincoln from Atlanta. “The first person he wanted to see was George Sullivan,” Clare said. “That’s because for almost 50 years, whenever you went into the training room, George was there. He’s such a warm guy, such an icon and such a personality. Guys could come in and talk to him about anything. He was almost like another parent for all of us.”

Weber and Nickolite Followed in Sully’s Giant Footsteps

Sullivan called two of his former student athletic trainers who became head trainers – Jerry Weber and Jack Nickolite – his “pride and joy” during Friday night’s private ceremony to dedicate the training room located inside the Athletic Medicine Facility.

According to Weber, if you were going to follow in Sully’s footsteps, or walk along side of him, you better be prepared to work hard and meet his high standards.

“I met George for the first time in 1969 as a freshman student here, and he scared the hell out of me for about the first six months,” Weber said. “Except for the older students in athletics and the athletes who loved him, everyone called him Mr. Sullivan. It’s cool that they named our training room for George because we’re almost in the exact same spot we were in when athletic medicine was in the old fieldhouse.

“I have a lot of memories about George here, and all the accolades he’s received over the years are totally deserved. He taught me as much about life as he did about athletic training. No. 1 was how to take care of kids and treat them correctly. He always made sure they came first – ahead of the program, ahead of their sport, even ahead of their coaches. We’re back on that road again. Things are back in order here with Coach Osborne.”

Weber remembers the outpouring of emotion when Sully retired 13 years ago. “Athletes came back from all over the world to honor him at the Legion Club,” he recalled. “Come hell or high water, those guys weren’t going to miss thanking George for what he’s done. He was one of the true pioneers in this field. In 1951, when the National Athletic Trainers Association started, George was among those who signed the original document. When they needed to elevate to a professional level, he helped develop the first national exams to certify and license athletic trainers. He was also among the first nationally to use his skills as a physical therapist to enhance his skills as an athletic trainer.”

Osborne said Sullivan and Paul Schneider, his predecessor at Nebraska, were “two of the first full-time athletic trainers in this part of the country.”

Nickolite succeeded Sullivan as head football trainer when Weber succeeded Sully as head athletic trainer.  “George was the best game-day trainer I’ve ever seen,” Nickolite said. “He knew so much about injuries and how to get a player back on the field safely because he was able to combine his knowledge with his intuition. He really was a pioneer. He created all kinds of braces and devices to get guys back on the field, and he could do it quicker than anyone – sometimes at halftime.  What he did when he was here is now in textbooks – books he helped write on a daily basis.”

Now a physician’s assistant and athletic trainer for the Nebraska Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine team, Nickolite said Sully’s popularity was the result of his leadership and his reputation as a straight shooter. “He treated everyone fairly and exactly the same,” Nickolite said. “Players, and everyone else, had such great respect for George and the way he handled things.”

More Than Once, Gatorade Was a Sore Subject with Sully

Sully’s patience was tested more than once. A student trainer, for instance, once spilled a 5-gallon jug of Gatorade on the training room floor. “George looked at him and didn’t say a word,” Nickolite recalled. “He just kind of shook his head, walked out the door and went straight to practice. But every day over the next two weeks, when that Gatorade seeped through the tiles to stick on George’s tennis shoes, he had some fun with that.”

Ironically, Gatorade is a bit of a sore subject with Sullivan, who believes the only reason the famous drink was invented was because an unnamed University of Florida doctor visited Lincoln and saw how Sully’s training team was using Huskerade (salt pills with fruit punch in a jug) to rehydrate players on the sideline.

Doak Ostergard, who succeeded Nickolite as head football trainer in 1998 and is now director of outreach for the athletic department, said Sullivan was always pushing the envelope with new thoughts and ideas about training.  “For a long time, George was the University of Nebraska Athletic Department because Coach (Bob) Devaney gave him a lot of power,” Ostergard said. “George even called himself SOB – for ‘South Office Business’ manager. Anything that was bought – from a coach’s desk to food on the training table – went through George first. I decided to name a shoulder harness I designed ‘the Sully’ just to try and give something back to George because he gave so much to me. He hired me as a student, then a graduate assistant and then full-time.”

Dr. Al Domina, president of the Touchdown Club, was on the field with Sullivan Saturday night. “George was a skilled, compassionate, diligent and innovative practitioner and cared for so many student-athletes,” Domina said. “He was also a mentor, teacher, advisor, psychologist and father-figure to many.”

Nebraska Sports Information Director Emeritus Don Bryant, whose family shares a sixth-floor West Stadium suite with the Sullivan family, said, “The training room should have been named for George long before the press facility was named for me.

“Think of the thousands of athletes he’s helped over the years,” Bryant said. “George kept them healthy, and he kept them happy. There were times when he even saved their lives, and they all love him. I can’t think of anybody in the world who could have done it better than George Finley Sullivan.”