Astros Draft pick follows Heisman-winning grandfather’s example

July 15th, 2024

How did the grandson of a Heisman Trophy winner and college football coach and the son of a quarterback end up on the baseball field?

It’s a question Joseph Sullivan, the Astros' seventh-round pick in the 2024 Draft, has fielded often.

His grandfather, Pat, starred at quarterback for Auburn before playing for Atlanta, Washington and San Francisco in the NFL, and then serving as a head coach at TCU and Samford. And his father, Pat Jr., had followed in those football footsteps, quarterbacking at Auburn and TCU.

So it’s a little strange to see this Sullivan going against the gridiron grain and forging his own path in baseball. But the muscular 5-foot-11, 198-pound Sullivan, who took part in the MLB Draft Combine, made the choice to commit to the diamond after his sophomore year of high school -- and he did so for an interesting reason.

“Probably all the failure,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s one of the hardest games you can play. It definitely takes a strong mental guy to do that. Along with the hard aspects of the skillset and everything, mentally, it’s the ones who are strongest who make it the furthest.”

So here’s the 22-year-old Sullivan, taking a different route with his athletic lineage and embracing all those mental hurdles that baseball brings.

He’s thrived amid the difficulty. In three seasons at South Alabama, he’s posted a .271/.436/.528 slash with 25 homers, 16 doubles, seven triples and 45 stolen bases -- a nice blend of power and speed from the left-hand side of the plate. He feels most comfortable in center field.

Last summer, Sullivan competed in the MLB Draft League with the Williamsport Crosscutters, posting a .288/.419/.678 slash line, slugging four homers and swiping five bases in 19 games. In one month, he won the league’s Hitter of the Week Award twice.

And though he’s not following his grandfather’s exact path, he does follow his example. Pat Sullivan was a legend at Auburn, where he teamed with Terry Beasley to form a feared passing combination, tied an NCAA career record with 71 total touchdowns and won the program’s first Heisman in 1971. But when Pat passed away at age 69 in 2019 after a long battle with cancer, Joseph was struck more by the outpouring of love the family received for the type of man Pat Sullivan was.

“He did many great things on the field,” Joseph said. “But it was more the things he did off the field that I took away from it. That’s kind of how I tried to model my own life.”

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Joseph did not get to know his grandfather well. With Joseph growing up in Mississippi and Pat in Alabama, the two were separated by a good deal of distance much of Joseph’s life. But in the summer of 2019, Joseph’s family moved into Pat’s Birmingham home while looking for a home of their own.

Joseph and Pat Sullivan.

At that time, Pat was fighting the cancer that would claim him.

“One of the coolest moments we had together,” Joseph said, “was when I was making dinner in the kitchen and he was sleeping on the couch. And my grandmother was like, ‘Hey, Joseph’s here,’ and his head kind of shot up. I always knew that he loved us and everything, but that was a good, visual example.”

Joseph Sullivan's grandfather, Pat, accepting the Heisman Trophy in 1971.AP

It was around that time that Joseph committed himself fully to baseball. His dad had played the sport in high school and always wished he had stuck with it.

“He said, ‘You can probably play baseball for a longer time,’” Joseph said. “It’s less taxing on the body.”

The Sullivan family knows this too well, as the elder Pat Sullivan had been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from repeated hits to the head.

Joseph dealt with some injury adversity of his own in his junior year, when a hamate fracture kept him off the field for about five weeks. But he’s learned to stay mentally strong throughout all the ups and downs that the game can deliver.

“It is a hard game,” he said. “You just kind of got to trust the process and just show up every day and work, and then it'll turn around eventually.”