Column: NFL nomad JT O’Sullivan brings lengthy list of lessons to Patrick Henry
The former player who spent time with 11 NFL teams is a rookie high school coach in San Diego
The more you talk with JT O’Sullivan about what he’s seen in a football life that’s steered him from Brett Favre to the 49ers to Frankfurt, the more you wonder what he hasn’t.
Start with his first team mini-camp in 2002, when the wet-eared quarterback drafted by the Saints stood slack-jawed as nearly 600 pounds of angry conflict — tackle Kyle Turley and defensive end Charles Grant — tore into each other on the ground in an initial 11-on-11 drill.
The lesson: Fight like your job depends on it.
“That was my first real NFL football moment, so I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me,’ ” joked O’Sullivan, entering his first season as head coach at Patrick Henry High School.
So, shifting from a world of likely hall of famers and the highest of football stakes to a high school shuffles the deck a wee bit.
“Now I’m worried about equipment and water, as opposed to what my first read is,” said O’Sullivan, freshly 40. “It’s just a little bit of a wider lens. But when you play quarterback, you almost have a trained ‘wide lens.’ It goes from just the offense to a wider, program perspective.”
O’Sullivan played, practiced, spent the offseason with, or reported to, 11 NFL teams, made two laps through NFL Europe and added a stop in the Canadian Football League. That makes him perhaps the most well-traveled guy to ever slip on shoulder pads.
Exhausted? O’Sullivan understands.
“There were times I’d go with the team on a train and be somewhere in Germany, but no way I could tell you where we were on a map,” he said.
By 2007, five years after being drafted No. 186 overall in the sixth round, O’Sullivan had played in one NFL game and thrown zero passes. The return trip to Frankfurt allowed him to pile up snaps as he was named co-offensive MVP of NFL Europe.
Another route emerged. Detroit offensive coordinator Mike Martz liked what he saw.
The lesson: Football is football.
“It legitimately gave me the second half of my career,” O’Sullivan said of his time with Frankfurt. “Without that film, no way Martz brings me in. That league resurrected me.”
O’Sullivan tossed his first touchdown pass in 2007, a 7-yarder to future All-Pro Calvin Johnson against the Vikings. The guy who threw it remains a good-natured critic of the execution, regardless of the result.
A season later, O’Sullivan landed in San Francisco and consistently saw the field for the first time in his career after Alex Smith was hurt. Though the 49ers finished just 2-6 in his eight starts, the thrill of finally making it brought chills.
The lesson: Never give up.
“There’s no way to do it justice with words,” said O’Sullivan, the only Division II player to receive a Heisman Trophy vote in 2000 when he played for UC Davis. “When you battle and claw for roster spots, just trying to make the team for your whole career, that’s pretty special.
“Hey, I just appreciated getting reps in practice. If you’re not one of those guaranteed first-round guys, you know how hard it is to the find the field.”
Football sparked interactions with some of the most interesting players in the game. In O’Sullivan’s short offseason and camp stint with the Packers, he witnessed the uncomfortable passing of the torch from Favre to Rodgers.
“I was there when it was awkward,” he said. “I see both sides of it, honestly. Brett didn’t ask for them to draft Aaron there and Aaron didn’t have any control about being in that situation. Just two big personalities who wanted to play and wanted to win.”
The lesson: The best don’t go half speed.
“I remember him coming up and say, ‘Hi, I’m Brett,’ ” O’Sullivan said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ That’s just authentically him. What you saw was what you got. I remember that how hard it looked like he played on Sunday, that’s how hard he practiced.
“That’s a great reminder. You can’t just turn these things on. You’ve got to be disciplined and put the work in.”
Favre provided a memory that makes O’Sullivan laugh to this day.
“When Brett was with Minnesota, we played them. I was with Cincinnati at that point,” he said. “After the game, he walked over and goes, ‘You’re still in the league?’ ”
The takeaway from Rodgers and his singular ability came with each throw.
“I played catch with Aaron a lot and I always think about how many revolutions he had, in terms of spin on the ball,” O’Sullivan said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
A brief practice squad stop with the Patriots allowed O’Sullivan to catch a glimpse of the one-of-a-kind relationship between Brady and coach Bill Belichick. They often met for an hour after practice to continue sorting, rehashing, perfecting.
The lesson: Uncommon excellence requires uncommon commitment.
“Those two spent more time together than any coach and quarterback I’d ever seen,” O’Sullivan said.
Brady helped inform the coaching philosophy of O’Sullivan by showing that even the best need to constantly polish their craft. The future Hall of Famer relentlessly worked on a play he used to carve up defenses with nimble wide-outs like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman.
One play, again and again and again.
“Before it was in vogue, Brady worked on getting the ball out from under center and get a throw off as fast as he could on one of those ‘smoke screens,’ ” O’Sullivan said. “He worked on that over and over in practice. There might have been other guys who’d thrown those first, but I hadn’t seen it.
“His hands were so fast.”
A blink-and-miss-it stop with the Chargers and Rivers showed O’Sullivan the grit and toughness possible under center.
The lesson: When you’re knocked down, get back up.
“I was shocked Rivers was so durable,” O’Sullivan said. “I felt like he was always getting blasted.”
All of those experiences and styles offered O’Sullivan up-close-and-personal perspective on playing football the right way. The task at Patrick Henry is likely to require all the tools in his teaching arsenal: The Patriots, 53-104 since 2004, finished 1-9 last season.
The new coach understands fighting against long odds. He did it his entire career.
“What I learned from football was the effort I put in,” said O’Sullivan, who previously worked in the compliance department at San Diego State. “The weight room, practice and how you play. Resiliency. It’s not always going to go your way.
“I got cut like seven or eight times, so I had to say to myself, ‘That’s just one organization’s opinion. I need to go find the next opportunity.’ ”
For Patrick Henry, O’Sullivan represents all those lessons scooped up in all those places in all kinds of wild and wonderful ways.
The football nomad is bracing for the challenge. Again.