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College football

Hardrocker quarterback Jake Sullivan runs the ball in a game against Western State Colorado University at O'Harra Stadium.

As a youngster, Jake Sullivan couldn't wait for his father, Wayne Sullivan, to come home at night so they could throw the football around.

The longtime head football coach at St. Thomas More, Wayne Sullivan became Jake's first receiving target, so to speak.

Now a senior quarterback at South Dakota School of Mines, Sullivan is still tossing the ball around as the school's all-time leader in touchdown passes (52).

Along with a handful of other Hardrocker seniors, Sullivan will play for the final time against the school's biggest rival, Black Hills State University, in college football's biggest rivalry in Division II Saturday night in the 133rd game for the Homestake Trophy — aka, the Black Hills Brawl.

The touchdown record has his name on it, but Sullivan said it is a team accomplishment that directly reflects on his teammates and his coaches.

He said that Mines head coach Zach Tinker took him under his wing, and he is a different player than when he first came in, even from a couple of years ago.

"That just speaks volumes of the guys I have had around me," he said. "The Robert Schrocks, the Jack Bathos (offensive linemen), who have been around for a while. The guys catching the ball, they are special players — Isaiah Manley and Mark Sanchez from a couple of years ago. They have made me look good. I have been pretty blessed to have them around me like that."

And when it comes to South Dakota Mines and Black Hills State, the rivalry is special as well. On Saturday, Sullivan will play in his fourth Black Hills Brawl.

"It's pretty exciting to be part of this type of rivalry," Sullivan said. "Mines and BH do such a good job with the communities; they support both teams so well. It is a fun environment to play in."

Sullivan is a veteran of this game, but he certainly remembers the first time he played against the Yellow Jackets. He returned punts, he played wide receiver and a little quarterback as well.

It's a rivalry game that freshmen are exposed to in a hurry. 

It's a game that Sullivan sees the young players transitioning to, "hey, now we're football players."

"I don’t think you are a true School of Mines football player until you have played in this game," he said.

Sullivan is 2-1 against BHSU, the lone loss last season in Spearfish, 25-24 in a game the Hardrockers led 24-6 at halftime.

That game is still stuck in his head.

"We came out and started quick, but we couldn't finish," he said. 

Saturday's game will be under the lights, as were the games in 2015 and 2016 at O'Harra Stadium, both victories for the 'Rockers.

"I love night games. It is always fun to play under the lights," he said. "Rapid games are always special because my family is here. That gives me a little extra juice when my family is up in the stands (ramp). I get to celebrate with them too. That is special."

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The Sullivan family will be there again on the ramp — immediate and extended.

"They are pretty rowdy. You'll be able to hear them anywhere in the stadium," he said.

At about 5 years old, Wayne Sullivan put the football in his young son's hands and would pretend he was tackling him. They threw the football around just about every night.

“I couldn’t go to sleep until we played catch,” Jake Sullivan said.

Part of that extended Sullivan family includes younger brothers Jedidiah, a freshman at STM where he plays quarterback and wide receiver, and JonPaul, a fifth grader. Both might be carbon copies of big brother.

Actually, both will be better, Jake believes. 

"Jed is head and shoulders above where I was at that age. That’s what I want. I hope they are better than me, and they already are," he said. "JonPaul is just a fifth grader and he can already throw the ball almost as far as I can now. I get a little emotional sometimes going to their games. I love watching them play. I love just being there for them, helping them get better; making sure they are better than me when they get older.

"I'm hoping I am a role model for them; that’s what I am striving to be.”

While his parents — Wayne and Lorrie — wanted their son to originally enroll at Mines, Sullivan said he was just out of high school and he didn't listen. He went to Aberdeen instead and spent one year at Northern State.

He gets it now, and getting his degree at Mines was suddenly important to him. Football was just a bonus.

Despite growing up with a football in his hands, he didn’t realize the game would play such a big role in his life with all of the lessons it taught him; just being part of the school, being a part of the culture change.

When he transferred, he said it was the best decision he has ever made.

"The first year I came in, it was not the way it is today. Today it is a family atmosphere. I'm not saying it wasn’t back then, but it is more tightly knit," he said. "Coach Tinker is a second father figure to a lot of the guys here. That is important, that is the stuff that you want."

With six games left in his senior season, there's no letting up. He said he is just going to "grip it and rip it," and not think twice about anything. Sullivan said his final goal as a Hardrocker is to leave the program better than he found it. 

"It's about creating a culture of hard workers and guys who never settle, who are never comfortable, always wanting to be better. I hope when I leave, that lasts longer than any records," he said.

And just because he will take his last snap this season as a Hardrocker, it might not mean he will take his last snap as a football player.

Along with his work opportunities as an engineer, Sullivan has also received offers to play football in Europe — Germany and Austria. In fact, he might be able to do both.

"I keep telling myself I have a lot of time to think about it, but I still need to make that decision soon," he said. "For now, I'm just focusing on the season and finishing out on a good note."

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Sports Editor

Sports reporter for the Rapid City Journal.