Stephen Sullivan couldn’t help but marvel at the improbability of it all.
A rookie tight end on the practice squad a few weeks ago, he saw his first NFL action Sunday at defensive end. He was credited with making an assisted tackle on his first NFL play, which came on third down and stopped what had been a promising opening drive for the 49ers (a wildcat snap to Jerick McKinnon that resulted in a 3-yard loss).
“I didn’t see this in a million years,’’ Sullivan said after the Seahawks secured a 37-27 victory over San Francisco.
But maybe he should have, given how improbable so much of his story has been already.
As he detailed on the day the Seahawks selected him in the seventh round last April — trading a 2021 sixth-round choice to Miami to move back into the draft to take him at 251st overall — he had to overcame a rough childhood just to get to the point where a football career could seem realistic.
While his parents dealt with legal issues, Sullivan often had to find a place to stay with coaches or families of friends. Some nights, he said, the only place he could find to sleep was under a highway overpass.
“Been some nights I didn’t know where my next meal was going to come from,” he said in April. “I didn’t know if I would have clean clothes for school.”
Sullivan (whose first name is pronounced steh-FON) overcame all of that not only to become a highly touted recruit at Donaldsonville (Louisiana) High and earn a scholarship to Louisiana State but also earn a degree in interdisciplinary studies, becoming the first college graduate in his family.
“It got me here,’’ Sullivan said Sunday when asked about the challenges of his youth. “So who’s to say it didn’t help me get to this point, you know?”
“This point” Sunday was bailing out the Seahawks with 22 critical snaps at the LEO/rush-end position with Benson Mayowa unable to play due to an ankle injury and Carlos Dunlap not yet available as he goes through the league’s COVID-19 testing protocol after he was acquired Wednesday.
It was a role the Seahawks began envisioning a few weeks ago when they moved him from tight end to defensive end.
As Sullivan told it, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was watching him work on the scout punt-return team one day “and saw me get off the ball. After that rep, he asked me if I had ever played defensive end. I told him I had in high school and he asked me if I would ever give it a shot. I was like, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
Sullivan began quietly working at defensive end with the team letting the move be known when it updated its roster after the bye week, noting he was now a defensive end and tight end and had a new number, 48, allowing him to play both spots.
Sullivan is listed at 6 feet 5, 245 pounds and ran a 4.66-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, where he was measured with an 85-inch wingspan that was longer than any defensive linemen there (Jadeveon Clowney, just to name one prominent end, has an 83-inch wingspan).
“He’s such a good athlete,’’ Carroll said.
But, having not played defensive end since high school, there’s been a lot to learn.
“I went over there and I didn’t know any moves, technique, how to use your hands or anything,’’ Sullivan said of his first few days of practice. “I was just running up the field trying to get past the tackle, and it didn’t work. So I started to get better and I started working my hands. And then next thing you know, I’m here today.’’
It really was almost that fast.
Injuries to Bruce Irvin and Rasheem Green already had the Seahawks shy on pass rushers. Then Mayowa turned up injured last week.
Suddenly, they needed Sullivan, raw as he might be at the position.
“He was willing to change from playing tight end to go rush the passer in the middle of his rookie season. It’s just a great team move that he made, because we needed his help,’’ Carroll said. “And today he got to play.’’
Carroll said Monday what might be expected — that Sullivan showed in the game he’s still got lots of room to grow.
“He missed some opportunities, some assignments in some of the things,” Carroll said. “It was a complex game plan, which didn’t help him so much. But he played hard. … for first time, he did fine.”
Among those who noticed Sullivan’s contribution was quarterback Russell Wilson.
“I think that Sully did a great job,’’ Wilson said. “He’s such a great athlete. Obviously a champion from LSU (the Tigers won the NCAA title last season). He knows how to play the game, and he’s a great tight end, too. He can play that position.
“I’m looking forward to seeing his growth as an overall player, what he can do. Obviously, him stepping up and learning the defensive-end position and just being a great athlete and being so intelligent on his stuff, it was great to see him make a play or two today.’’
When he might make a play or two again is up in the air.
For now, Sullivan remains on the practice squad.
The Seahawks took advantage of new rules this season to elevate him to the active game-day roster Saturday. He will revert to the practice squad Monday, and with Dunlap eligible this week and Mayowa possibly back (he practiced on a limited basis Friday, indicating his injury isn’t overly serious), Sullivan might stay on the practice squad for a while.
It’s also unclear if he’ll stay at defensive end.
Sullivan said his first few days making the switch he also still spent time at tight end, and the Seahawks haven’t portrayed the move as permanent, stating that one reason they moved him is because they are loaded at tight end. Sunday, they had five tight ends on the 47-player active roster.
Sullivan said he doesn’t care where he ends up, just hoping there’s a role for him down the road.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win, honestly,’’ he said. “I’m a team player so if coach Pete wants me to kick the ball, then I’ll kick the ball.’’