Jerry Sullivan had two choices as a kid.
He could either let the rough Miami neighborhood he grew up in drag him down or use football as a way out.
Fortunately for Sullivan, the 49ers wide receivers coach of the past five seasons, his conscience kept him on the straight and narrow. He never wanted to fall into a life of crime like some of the kids in his neighborhood. He knew the quick cash wasn’t worth it. He wanted to play football and earn a college scholarship.
And that is exactly what he did.
“I still teetered when I was 10, 11, 12,” Sullivan said, “but then football became too important to me. I didn’t want to end up in jail and have everything taken away.”
Sullivan grew up in foster care, and by age 13 he was sick of moving from foster home to foster home. So he moved in with his best friend, Joe Avezzano; along with his conscience, Avezzano’s parents, Sonny and Helen Cesarotti, kept Sullivan on the right path. So did his high school football coach, Joe Brodsky. “Joe Brodsky changed me from having sort of a hoodlum mentality to doing what was right,” Sullivan said.
Under the guidance of the Cesarottis and Brodsky, Sullivan played quarterback at Miami Jackson High School and earned a scholarship to Florida State University. He later transferred to Delta State.
When Sullivan graduated in 1968 he was offered a job with the FBI, but he knew he wanted to coach. So instead he took a job as a graduate assistant at Kansas State University for $50 a month. He was hired to coach the school’s freshman team seven months later.
In 1973 Sullivan was hired as the wide receivers coach at Texas Tech, and he spent the next 18 years coaching wide receivers at the college level.
The transition from a college quarterback to a wide receivers coach was easy for Sullivan. He knew the ins and outs of the passing game and it didn’t matter to him which angle he approached it from.
In his time at Texas Tech, South Carolina, Indiana, Louisiana State and Ohio State, Sullivan coached some of the best wide receivers in the nation including Wendell Davis, Eric Martin and Joey Galloway.
However the more time he spent in college, the more Sullivan wanted the challenge of coaching in the NFL. In 1992 he got that opportunity and has been in the NFL ever since spending time in San Diego, Detroit, Arizona and Miami before coming to San Francisco in 2005. Along the way he has coached even more great wide receivers including Anquan Boldin, David Boston, Tony Martin and Chris Chambers, and Sullivan feels lucky to have been around such great players. “I wouldn’t still be around, still be doing what I’m doing if not for those guys,” he said.
But if not for Sullivan, those great wide receivers wouldn’t be where they are today.
Sullivan’s rough upbringing was similar to many of his players, and he has a unique ability to relate to and motivate them.
“He basically raised himself and I did too,” 49ers wide receiver
Now, Sullivan’s life couldn’t be any different from his days in Dade County. He and his wife Connie reside in San Jose and any time he gets away from the field he spends playing with his grandchildren who are the “apple of [his] eye.”
But that time is limited. Sullivan spends most of his time dedicated to football and his receivers say he is the best coach they have ever had.
Morgan called Sullivan a “mad scientist” because of everything the coach does on the field, and Morgan didn’t realize how much went into the most basic routes before meeting Sullivan.
The 64-year-old knows he is in the winter of his coaching years, but he still has a lot he wants to prove. Sullivan is trying to turn the 49ers young receiving corps into one of the league’s best, and he is using everything he has learned throughout his life to get it done.
“When I was growing up, and spent so much time alone, I really learned a lot about myself,” Sullivan said. “I really had a lot of introspective with myself, and I think that has helped me over the years to better understand everything around me. However, I have been around so many great coaches throughout my life that shaped me as well.And that has definitely translated into my coaching career.
“They made me who I am today.”