Veterans Day meaningful to Bucs' OC

TAMPA, Fla. -- As the national anthem is sung, the military planes fly over Raymond James Stadium and a whole bunch of other pregame events take place to celebrate Veterans Day at Sunday's game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan won't be thinking about the first few plays he'll call.

"I'll think of those men and women in harm's way as we speak, their sacrifices and their families," Sullivan said. "I'll think of my close friend, my best friend, Greg Gadson."

This is a friendship that started more than 20 years ago through football, but it has endured and grown stronger through challenges that came from far off the football field.

It started at West Point back in the 1980s, when Sullivan and Gadson were classmates and football teammates. The friendship endured through the years, even though Sullivan left the military after a few years and worked his way up through the coaching ranks while Gadson became a career officer.

Gadson and Sullivan would talk sporadically, but that changed in the spring of 2007.

"I got a call from him a week before he was going to deploy," Sullivan said. "He was a classmate of mine and a great player and artillery officer. He called me out of the blue and said, 'I'm so proud of you. You're coaching in the NFL and you're the quarterbacks coach of the New York Giants now.' He's getting ready to lead a combat battalion into Iraq, and I said, 'Proud of me? No, I'm proud of you.'"

The conversation ended with Sullivan telling Gadson to be safe, but he never imagined anything bad could happen to his larger-than-life former teammate.

"I got an email three or four weeks later that he was wounded severely and they didn't know if he was going to make it," Sullivan said. "He pulled through, but he lost both legs."

You might have seen Gadson, serving as an honorary captain for the Giants when they won Super Bowl XLII. You might have seen him on the sideline at any of their big games since then, including last season's Super Bowl.

The way the story usually is told is that Gadson and New York coach Tom Coughlin are close friends. That's true now, but it's not how this whole thing started.

As spring turned into summer in 2007, Gadson was recovering in Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Md. When the Giants finished their offseason program, Sullivan drove down to visit his former teammate.

"When I saw him, I was struck by two things," Sullivan said. "One, you could see the pain he had gone through, the weight he had lost and how he had suffered. But, then, the second thing was the spirit, the look in his eyes and his resolve. I went down to try to cheer him up and he ended up cheering me up."

Then, with the Giants off to an 0-2 start in 2007 and about to play on the road against the Washington Redskins, Sullivan called Gadson to see if he'd like to come to the game. When Gadson accepted, Sullivan came up with another idea.

"I asked coach Coughlin if he could come be with us," Sullivan said. "I was so inspired by him that I thought that our players would be inspired by his message. He spoke, we won that game and he was with the team all through that Super Bowl and with the team all through last year's Super Bowl."

Gadson is still around the Giants often, but Sullivan is gone. He left in the offseason to become an NFL coordinator for the first time.

"When I left to take this job, the Maras were very supportive," Sullivan said of the family that owns the Giants. "The one time the smile went to a straight face was when they said, 'You're not taking Col. Gadson with you.' He's still with them. That's his unit and that's his sense of loyalty."

Funny, even though Sullivan has been out of the military since 1993, it's still his unit and his sense of loyalty is very strong. When he was going through West Point, Sullivan always thought he'd be what Gadson is -- an officer who would stay in the Army for decades.

When he graduated from West Point in 1989, Sullivan was commissioned into the Army. He chose to follow the infantry branch. He finished the infantry officer course at Fort Benning, Ga., and graduated from Army Airborne School, Ranger School and Air Assault School. He then was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii.

That's where Sullivan's military career came to an end.

"It happened by accident," Sullivan said. "I was enjoying my time and looking to the next challenges and continuing to grow and develop. But I had a situation in my lower back that was going to force me to transfer branches. I could have stayed in the Army, but I was going to have to get out of combat arms. I could have had a logistics support job, which those are admirable and important jobs, but it just wasn't something I wanted to do."

Sullivan received an honorable discharge and worked a few odd jobs before realizing his love for football and his military training provided a logical career path.

"It wasn't necessarily ever in my mind to someday get into coaching," Sullivan said. "I think it was that experience of leading at that level as a junior officer and working through stressful situations individually and as a group to accomplish a goal and then to see a unit go out and get tested and performing well and seeing guys developing -- that's what inspired me to get into the coaching field."

Sullivan's not sure if all the lessons he learned in the military are the reason he quickly climbed the ladder through the college ranks and on to the NFL, where he quickly is developing a reputation as one of the league's best young offensive coordinators. But Sullivan, 45, knows his background didn't hurt.

"I know that I've relied upon it heavily, and that it steers and directs how I approach things and how I try to be very disciplined and also maintain a level head when things are going crazy," Sullivan said. "I learned that early on in Ranger school, when I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off and a Ranger said, 'Hey, you're trying to do well, but you're nervous. You've got to just settle down here and keep a cool head.' When you keep a cool head, the people around you will keep a cool head."

After the Veterans Day festivities end, Sullivan will relay the first offensive play -- probably one that was determined days before -- into the headset worn by quarterback Josh Freeman, and his mind will focus totally on the game.

But for those few minutes before the game, Sullivan will be reflecting on his own military background and thinking about those he trained with and those that came after him.

"I was trained and prepared to do what was necessary and was ready, but I was never called upon to do what our heroic men and women are doing right now because the world was relatively peaceful at the point I was in service," Sullivan said. "It hasn't been very peaceful for the last 10 years or so. There's no way I would equate what I did to what the heroic men and women are doing these days. Veterans Day should be respected and honored even more than it is.

"I'll think of Greg and his sacrifice, and I'll think of all the young people. And I'll be thankful that I had my time in that venue to give me a better perspective of what they go through. I'll kick myself in the butt if I start feeling frustrated or down during the game because it's their day and those people are the true heroes."