SEATTLE, WA - As the 2020 NFL Draft neared its conclusion with picks trickling in rapidly late in the seventh round, Stephen Sullivan looked to be heading to south beach.
As the versatile LSU receiver-turned-tight end detailed, his agent informed him they had deals lined up with multiple teams as an undrafted free agent if necessary. Then, the Dolphins called Sullivan, indicating their plans to use one of their two final picks to "try and get him."
Pacing around the room nervously, Sullivan awaited another call from Miami. His phone finally rang moments later, but it wasn't the zip code he anticipated.
"I really don’t even know what to say," an excited Sullivan explained. "It was so mind blowing and I didn’t expect it at all. At first I was a free agent like five minutes ago and then next thing you know I’m getting a call from Seattle saying they’re going to pick me and it was crazy. It’s something that I really can’t explain.”
He wound up being selected with the 251st overall pick, but instead of joining the Dolphins, the athletically-gifted Sullivan will now begin his NFL career with the Seahawks, who shipped a 2021 sixth-round pick to re-enter the draft to pick him.
For the second straight draft, general manager John Schneider moved future draft assets to jump back into the seventh round for a player he didn't want to risk losing as an undrafted free agent. Last April, he made an identical move dealing a future sixth round pick to the Jaguars to select receiver John Ursua.
“It feels great. It feels like I’m wanted, and it brings that fire to me. It feels like I need to go in there and prove myself. I have to go in there and give them 110 percent every single day. They believe in me. I appreciate them for believing in me and believing in my talent."
Due to the uncertainty clouding the 2020 season amid the coronavirus pandemic, Seattle placed tremendous emphasis throughout this year's draft adding experienced players with ample starting experience who could get acclimated quickly. Sullivan serves as the one exception to the rule, as he started only a handful of games in his four seasons with the Tigers, catching 46 passes for 712 yards and three touchdowns.
However, while Schneider admitted he's "a little bit more of a developmental prospect" than the Seahawks other seven selections, he possesses elite athletic traits and impressed the coaching staff at the Senior Bowl. And like the rest of Seattle's class, he's dealt with incredible adversity to hear his name called at the NFL Draft.
Growing up in Irving, Texas, Sullivan's family lived in extreme poverty and at times, he experienced homelessness. At one point, he spent several nights sleeping under a bridge. He recalled seeing his father doing cocaine in front of his mother and physical confrontations between the two.
"I kind of became a man on my own just from learning and watching. Watching coaches, watching family and things like that... It’s just so much that I’ve been through."
Eventually, both of Sullivan's parents were incarcerated and he moved in with his aunt in Donaldsville, Louisiana prior to his freshman year of high school. His situation didn't improve much, as his aunt moved out and he was stuck in a trailer with one of her daughters.
"Some nights, we didn’t have hot meals, some nights we didn’t eat, some nights we didn’t have clean clothes to go to school and things like that," Sullivan said.
Still searching for stability, Sullivan asked the mother of his best friend, Tyler Brown, if he could move in with them before his sophomore year. He often had gone to their home on the nights where he couldn't get a warm meal.
Though she already had three children to take care of, including Tyler, Brown's mother welcomed Sullivan with open arms and he stayed with the family for the duration of his high school career before enrolling at LSU.
"I left high school early just to really get out of their house because I always felt like I was too much. She never mentioned that, she never complained. Not one time. There was just something in me that I felt like I wanted to get out of that situation I was in to just move on to the next chapter."
The Seahawks are always searching for players with chips on their shoulder - Schneider and coach Pete Carroll are constantly talking about "grit" - and Sullivan oozes grit given the incredible obstacles he has overcome to reach this point.
Due to his lack of game experience, Carroll acknowledged Sullivan will have a steep learning curve coming into the league, regardless of whether he's a receiver or a tight end. But leaning on his connections with LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who previously served on his staff at USC, as well as Senior Bowl executive director and former Seahawks scout Jim Nagy, he's excited for the opportunity to develop him and create a role for him with the Seahawks.
"He’s a marvelous talent. We’ll see if we can find a good way to make it come to life and come to the front. It surely is going to be on us, because he’s going to do his part. He has so much energy for it, such a great motor. A really good guy to bring into the program.”
Further displaying the outstanding character that made him an ideal prospect for Seattle, while Sullivan intends to make his mark on the field, he understands his ascent to the NFL is bigger than just football. Reflecting on his journey, he knows he easily could've meandered onto the wrong path, turning to selling drugs or becoming involved in gun violence.
Instead, he used his dire circumstances as motivation to write his own story and continue pursuing his goals. By having his dreams come true being drafted by the Seahawks, he hopes to provide inspiration for other children growing up in a similar environment that they too can achieve incredible success.
"At the end of the day, I just want to help that young kid that’s like me. I didn’t have that person to look up to and be like, 'okay I’m going to college, I’m going to graduate, I’m going to do this next.' I feel like I want to be that person that kids in my city, Donaldsonville, can look up to... I think that really made me stand my ground just being a hero to some kids.”