MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — The back injury that kept Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan from playing last season prompted two surgeries.
He couldn’t touch his toes or put on his shoes for two months after the second operation in late October. He was only able to hold his infant son if his wife handed him over.
He was forced to watch the games at home on television, unable to influence any of the developments that unfolded in front of him on the screen.
Sullivan’s desire to resume his career, though, was never deterred, even if he wondered if his body would ever return to playing shape.
“I knew that if I recovered there was no question in my mind that I was going to come back and play this year,” said Sullivan, who has started his ninth NFL season.
“Because I don’t think I’m putting the rest of my life at risk any more than I would be if I was coming off a healthy year, you know what I mean? Look, it’s an inherently dangerous job to a certain extent, although there are much more dangerous jobs out there, and I’m very fortunate to be able to play.
“My body feels good. I’m not being told by my body that it’s time to stop. So I’m going to come out and keep doing what I enjoy.”
Joe Berger shined at center in his absence, but that doesn’t mean Sullivan wasn’t missed by the Vikings offense, particularly quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in terms of identifying the defense’s alignment before the snap to set the protection plans.
“It’s not good that Sullivan missed last season,” coach Mike Zimmer said, “but it was good that Teddy had to take this all upon himself last year.”
Drafted in the sixth round out of Notre Dame in 2008, Sullivan cracked the lineup in his second season and started 96 of a possible 99 games, including the playoffs until last year.
Sullivan had a lumbar microdisectomy procedure done five days before the season opener to repair a herniated disc, but his progress was waylaid in mid-October when he aggravated the injury while weightlifting. He missed out on the fun of the team’s first NFC North title since 2009.
“You’re happy, but at the same time you want to be a part of it. You feel left out,” said Sullivan, whose black beard is now speckled with gray. He added: “It was a frustrating year to say the least from a personal standpoint.”
Sullivan said he felt fully recovered by the spring, working out in the weight room with no major restrictions and running normally in conditioning drills. There were no apprehensions, he said, on the field during practice.
“Not for one second did I think about my back, the entire time,” said Sullivan, whose contract expires after the 2017 season.
He has never been picked for a Pro Bowl, but Sullivan was considered one of the best at his position around the league before his injury.
Set to turn 31 next week, Sullivan has returned with no guarantee of re-establishing that status. He has been working mostly with the first-team offense, but Zimmer and new offensive line coach Tony Sparano have worked Berger and right tackle T.J. Clemmings in the starting lineup on alternate days for Sullivan and Andre Smith.
“I don’t think I need to prove anything. I mean, it’s my ninth year in the NFL. I’ve proved plenty,” Sullivan said.
“What this is now is I’m here because I want to work hard. I’m here because I like this team. I think I have plenty of great football left in me, and I want to go out and win some games.”
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