From Gridiron to Grace
An Athlete's Journey Toward Inner Harmony

John Patrick Sullivan interviewed by Jim Buckley

Montecito Journal -- November 7, 2002

The first time I met yoga devotee John Patrick Sullivan, we were seated at the same table at a local wedding. The six-foot-two Sullivan handed me his card, which read “Teahouse Yoga,” explaining off-handedly that, “it isn't called that anymore.” John Patrick — it seems almost disrespectful to use only one of his given names — lives at the Ladera Lane campus of La Casa de Maria, where he has become a much sought-after presence. He also leads yoga classes and seminars in Montecito and Santa Barbara. Yoga, however, was not always his vocation; from 1979 until 1982, John Patrick Sullivan was a National Football League middle line-backer, first for the Chicago Bears and then for the New York Jets. His professional football career proved short-lived, partly because of the injuries he received while playing, partly because of his “bad boy” behavior off the field. Unfortunately for John Patrick, he played before the big bucks bonanza of present day multi-million-dollar salaries and signing bonuses. He never earned more than $65,000 in one year with the NFL, but lived — and was treated — like a millionaire anyway. Though recruited to the University of Illinois on a football scholarship, he only recently received his Bachelors Degree in Marketing from the University of Illinois by completing a computer course at SBCC.

John Patrick's local classes at La Casa De Maria and at the YMCA, his innovative methods and soothing peaceful manner (not to mention his good looks and near-perfect physique), have created something of a stir among Montecito's fitness elite. His book, Complete Stretching, A New Exercise Program for Health and Vitality (Alfred A. Knopf , $23), written with Maxine Tobias and first published in 1992, is in its sixth printing, the most recent in December, 2001. The author team also has a video they co-produced and star in, called “Basic Yoga.” The following profile and conversation was held partly at the Wine Bistro on Coast Village Road, and on the Ladera Lane campus of La Casa De Maria.

“Machined” for football

Looking at John Patrick today would give little indication that he was once a bulked-up, 225 pound football giant. But, from an early age, football was his life, his goal, his vocation, his career. As he explains it, he was “programmed” to be a middle linebacker. He says that from high school on, he was “machined” into a football player. He likens the kind of training he received to military training, with the repetition of certain muscles and body parts. The problem with that kind of training, as he sees it now, was that the areas that didn't get developed got injured. “You over train certain muscles and certain parts of the body in order to create bulk, and then the weak joints get injured,” he says. That's what happened to him — his knees eventually gave out and knee surgery was required. “I was guided as a youngster to train with weights for upper body strength and not worry too much about the lower body,” he recalls, adding that, “eventually the weakness shows up in the lack of agility and flexibility. You get hit a lot in the legs and in the feet, and that's where the injury occurred for me.”

Sullivan still has great respect for professional athletes. “You don't appreciate it on TV,” he says. “You think all these guys are just running around tackling each other, but I've gained a great respect for all professional athletes — not just football players — baseball, basketball, golf. They make it look so easy but these guys are tremendous athletes.” He explains that, when he played football, there were perhaps 1,500 people, total, in the NFL, and in order to be one of those 1,500, one had to climb a pyramid that begins in high school and ends with a very few at the top enjoying a professional career.

Recruited by Butkus

“Many people asked why I didn't go to Notre Dame with a name like John Patrick Sullivan,” he says, noting that he was a high school star and was courted by colleges across the U.S. “I can tell you why,” he answers. “It's because (legendary Chicago Bears linebacker) Dick Butkus, who was my idol at the time, at 17 or 18, called me up and said, `John Patrick, I think you're a heck of a football player and I want you to come to the University of Illinois.' That's all he had to say. He brought me to the University of Illinois and to this day I'm sure he regrets it because I broke all his records. That's what brought me to Illinois and it was an enriching experience; I have no regrets.”

After breaking all Dick Butkus's formidable records at the University of Illinois, Sullivan was the fifth player drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1979. Another legend, Buddy Ryan, was the Bears' defensive coordinator. “On my very first day of practice,” Sullivan recalls, “the humidity was one-hundred-twenty-percent and it was ninety-degrees outside and Buddy Ryan gets us out there doing these positions called `down/up,' where they hit the ball up and down and get you to jump up and down with full equipment on. So he decides to test me. I'm the hotshot rookie and one of the higher draft choices of all the linebackers there. After we've done about forty of these down/up moves he keeps on running me and we're up to about sixty and I just can't move anymore and I stayed. down. I literally can't get off the floor. By this time, he has sent everybody but me away. When I can't get up, he gets upset and throws the football at me so hard it gets stuck in my face mask. This is my first day in a double session, about twenty minutes into practice, and I'm sitting on the ground with a football stuck in my facemask. I'm thinking, `Oh my God, this must be Hell. What am I getting myself into?' It was brutal.

So, you had a good first season with the Bears?

Not really. In an early pre-season match-up against the New York Jets, I am having a great game. I was named Most Valuable Player that night; I've intercepted the pass from New York Jets' Richard Todd, the quarterback. I'm making some big plays and I'm about to make my second interception and I'm going up fully exposed and grabbing the ball. The offensive play was behind me though, and one of the defense gives me a shot in my hip that knocked my right hip over to my left hip. I can't get out of bed the next day; I literally can't walk. But, on this team, you don't miss a practice. They put a new guy right behind me; he was a sixth-round draft choice, a decathlon guy — a great athlete. Basically they were looking for a back-up linebacker. So I was put on waivers and the Jets picked me up on waivers.

Just like that?

Yeah, that was it. I was gone. The Jets picked me up because they saw me playing in that pre-season game, so obviously they were watching, and I was immediately activated on their roster so I didn't miss any games; I just went right into the season. That was in 1979-1980, though I played mostly special teams — punt return, kick-off, kick return — the suicide squad as they called it — that year. The next season, they moved me to the outside because they had two middle linebackers and they needed extra outside linebackers.

But, they took you on as a middle linebacker. Is that an easy transition?

No. The outside linebacker has to be faster than I was. Besides, I was pro-grammed to be a middle linebacker. It was during my second season with the Jets, I think, that I started to realize and to understand that in the professional game you really are a piece of meat. I really didn't have the skills and speed for the outside linebacker position, but they didn't really need the skills I did have.

So, they get a guy who can do his job and then move him to where he can't?

Yeah, basically that's what happened. They moved me out of the middle and I was trying to get them to move me back but they said they had two players they were comfortable with and they didn't have an outside linebacker. So I finished that season, but when I came back the following season they already had made their minds up that John Patrick wasn't going to be with them — that was my third year — and by the middle of training camp they didn't give me a chance to compete with the guys that were in training camp — they already had made their decision.

How did they let you know they were letting you go?

This is what happens in the life of an NFL player. You hear a knock on the door, and then the door moves; you know it's coming — you sense it in the air — and the voice on the other side says `Bring your playbook back to the head coach's office, he wants to see you.' So it's a Saturday afternoon in Head Coach Walt Michaels' dark and gloomy office and he says to me, `Well son it's time to go to other fields. We're letting you loose because we want you to be picked up by another team.' You know that whole hogwash stuff. So I say, `Okay, thanks coach,' and walked out numbed and dazed.

So, one day you're a star, and now you're what?

The transition period was long and hard. One day, I'm training as a modern-day gladiator, and the next day, they tell me it's over. Go get another job.

Where did you go from there?

The phone just stops ringing. I wore the “football mask” for many years after though; I lived with the players, I stayed friends with many of my former teammates, I was part of the fraternity. I felt I was still was part of the team even though I wasn't collecting a check. I was renting a room from one of the guys on the team; I worked at one of his bars for a while as a bartender. I was still running in that circle, so it was very hard to let go.

Were you doing anything when you were in bartending to stay in shape?

I was still doing the `football' workout. I was lifting heavy weights. The new United States Football League recruited me. Later, I even signed contracts with the Toronto Argonauts and the Chicago Blitz (George Allen was Head Coach), but I think once you leave the game for a year, you leave it for good because you don't have the tenacity to throw your body around like you used to. You lose the instinct to kill.

You finally did “take off your football mask” though, and got a job.

Yes, with Budweiser. This is now about four years later, I'm now twenty-eight or twenty-nine. I was basically going around to bars introducing myself as John Sullivan the linebacker, telling locker-room stories. They gave me the position of sales manager, but really it was like I was there to promote Budweiser as an ex-linebacker. A lot of ex-jocks get hired to do what I did.

How did you keep your spirits up?

I was twenty-nine years old but felt like I was going on forty-nine. I weighed about two hundred and twenty pounds and was in really, really bad health. I had an ulcer, was feeling lethargic, heavy, tired, bored, my energy was low and I was repeating the same old patterns — I was doing the same exercises that I learned during my football training. This is where the luck of the Irish kicked in. Guinness Brewery offered me a job in Atlanta, Georgia as a district manager. Being an ex-linebacker for the New York Jets had by now, become a curse. By removing myself from New York I was finally able to break that spell. When I arrived in Atlanta, nobody knew me, I was able to recreate myself; that's where I discovered yoga and meditation. My very first yoga class — I remember it like it was yesterday — was in a church hall, in the basement. I never did it before, never knew what it was about, but it was very profound. I discovered that I was supposed to be this athlete in top condition, and in my first yoga position, I found myself not able to come close to what the other students could do easily. In the forward bend pose, I couldn't even get near my kneecaps, never mind my toes.

In football training, you pump up, get stronger, bench press more, and work on upper body strength. When I was a player there wasn't much talk about flexibility, agility, and all-around conditioning, which is what I'm interested in now. What I realized was that we over-trained certain parts of the body and over-stressed a lot of joints. Knee injuries ended my career; what happens is you get hit on the side of your knee and ligaments get ripped off the inside of the bone and they have to go in and staple them. back on. If I could do anything over in my career as a football player, it would be to train more in agility, flexibility, and suppleness, and to learn how to roll more when taking a hit.

Okay, so you're trying to get healthy and taking yoga, but you can't even touch your knees.

During my first yoga class, I had this revelation that this subject, this philosophy, was going to be my way into a new way of life, a new way of being. I was born and raised an Irish Catholic, and in that environment the body is separate from the spirit. By studying yoga, I learned that the body is the seat of consciousness, which was a revelation to me.

How long did it take you to get your body back?

I started doing yoga at first a couple times a week and I started having some releases quickly. One thing about being an athlete — and I still like to teach and coach athletes — is that they're disci-plined. They stay with the program. If you tell them to do an hour of practice, they go home and do an hour. They know that to get to a certain point they've got to do it, so I had the discipline and started doing my own self-practice at home; I went to classes regularly, learned the forms, picked up more techniques, and just started to explore that avenue more. In the beginning, I achieved good results quickly. You'd be amazed how soon the transformation can occur; the ligaments start to change, soft tissue softens, breath deepens and holding patterns are altered...

It happens that quickly?

Yeah, in less than a year. So, here I am working with Guinness, going to classes, working as a corporate guy. I still wasn't satisfied; life felt empty Then I learned my father was dying, so I cut a deal with Guinness and left and moved back up to New York for the last six to eight weeks of my father's life. That was the beginning of a real shift in my life.

My grandfather was a New York City fireman. My dad was a Nassau County detective; he worked in the department for twenty years, and then got a job with Coca Cola for another twenty years. Then, he retired. A year later he was dead; he died of cancer. I saw at that time that you can't wait to do what you want to do.

I saw that if I was going to live a different kind of life, I needed to change my old ways. I wanted to learn from my father's and grand-father's experience. My first step was to apply to Iyengar Institute in San Francisco, to become a yoga teacher. I spent six months in San Francisco before moving back to Atlanta to teach yoga, where I met and fell in love with Maxine Tobias. She was a visiting yoga teacher who lived in London, and I ended up going to Europe for the summer and ended up spending the next ten years in England with her.

How did you end up in Montecito?

Maxine and I met Kathleen Holden in Portugal, who lived in Montecito at the time, and she invited us to lead a weeklong yoga seminar. We loved it so much we came back the following year to do another one, and then I decided to stay on and get to know the area. Maxine went home, but I decided it was time for me to move back to the United States, and this was a good place to set up shop. I lived in a Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Center in San Luis Obispo for a year before returning to Santa Barbara to start Teahouse Yoga near the upper village in Montecito. I was offered the opportunity to move to La Casa De Maria about eighteen months ago to teach yoga, where I am today.

What is it about the kind of yoga you teach that is different?

First, I'd like to say I have a tremendous amount of respect and honor of the traditions of yoga and what it has given me. I have studied yoga for seventeen years and have been to India twice and studied with two masters whose systems are the most practiced in the world — Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. My new direction is to seek fluidity in body movement. Since the physical body is made up mostly of fluids, I feel we should move more like liquid. My intention is to follow nature's direction of spirals, waves, and circles.

My Irish Catholic male genetic code is very different from, for example, a woman in India; why should we be doing the same exercise? Men's bodies are denser, more rigid, so they should be doing something different than the woman next to them. When I go around the yoga studios today I see everybody doing the same thing. So, to go back to the original Yogis — and I'm trusting that I'm intuitively picking this up — that the original Yogis were doing more spontaneous movement.

What I'm attempting to teach is movement, without going into the strict form to control people and how they're moving. You can't prescribe the same generic exercise to everybody, because we are all so different. You've got to treat people individually. You've got to take into account their lifestyle, their work, their religion even.

Tell us about your classes at. the Montecito Y.

I teach there one day a week, and one thing I like about teaching at the Y is that you turn your head and you look right into the `fitness' room. What's going on in there is scary. People have headphones, headsets; they've got the TV on, their palm pilots with them, and they're on the Stairmasters. As far as I can tell, they're completely disassociated from their bodies. This is mechanical exercise, but it isn't a prescription for health. It keeps your body, breath, and movements, locked into the old industrial revolution patterns where all that was needed was the strength to perform a very limited movement. If that is all you are going to do, you're really better off going for a walk on the beach.

You also hold yoga sessions at La Casa De Maria.

I teach a one-hour class four mornings a week, Wanda Be is the instructor on Wednesdays. We begin at 7am; classes are eight dollars and are held in the Barrett Center. It's a great way to start your day.

You also give private lessons?

I give individual lessons. I give group classes, teach seminars, I coach sports people, and I work with Melody Parker, the female head coach for the City College men's volleyball team. She saw the benefits of stretching, breathing, concentration practices, and visualization. I also teach deluxe stretching to Santa Barbara Polo Team Duende. Another aspect of my work is remedial yoga, where I've been working with people with Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's disease; and have achieved some pretty good results for them. My students range from beginners to advanced, and everybody is welcome.

What are your goals from here forward?

The National Football League Players Association has the responsibility of taking care of some of the players and one of the plans that I see and would like to work with them with, is to change their habits, to change the patterns players get Into after
football. What I want to do is reeducate the retired players into having a new way of moving, new way of eating, a new way of being themselves.

You talked to me earlier about Mike Webster.

Yeah, Mike Webster, four-time Super Bowl winner; he hiked the ball for Terry Bradshaw. Mike died at the age of fifty on his son's couch. They said he was punch drunk. That does not have to happen. You can change it. You can change your habits. I'm a perfect exam-pie of what can be done. There are players out there that I'm sure are changing, but they need to have a program. I believe there needs to be some type of rehabilitation after they're done playing because of all the numbing that goes on and all the pounding that the body and mind takes. There has to be a changing of their attitude and the way that they're approaching retirement — to actually offer them the opportunity to make the transition from professional athlete to successfully living the rest of their lives.

Is there something you could do now, while the athletes are still active?

Why I feel so adamant about afterwards is because when they're there, the active players are so egotistical that they think that whatever got them there is what's going to keep them there. But when you are on your hands and knees and you can't get out of bed in the morning and realize that there's something seriously wrong, that's when pain and suffering becomes the great teacher. That's what happened to me. The punishment I experienced after the years of playing football, not only the physical pain and suffering, but also the emotional agony it caused, put me on this exciting journey.


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