It’s always been a part of his life. There are the pictures of him as a tot playing on a fire truck, trying to keep the oversized helmet on his head. There are the countless, indelible memories he holds sitting on a fire truck, waving his little hand to the appreciative Havertown residents at July Fourth parades.
He was like a playful mascot of the , that kid who would scamper through the firehouse and the older volunteers would nod to each other as if to say, "He’ll be here one day, too."
Each time his older brother David’s pager would go off, he wanted to follow, knowing something exciting and unknown was ahead.
Dylan Cullen isn’t little anymore. He’s 6-foot-2, 230 pounds with the bull-like strength to knock down a metal door. senior also carries a pager everywhere he goes today, like his older brother, David, once did. Dylan somehow manages to juggle some semblance of a normal high school life, as a two-way starter on Haverford’s football team, maintain a stellar grade-point average and work as a volunteer firefighter at Llanerch.
It's meant sometimes trying to stay awake during chemistry class after responding to a call at 2 a.m. and getting about two hours of sleep before going to school at 7:30 a.m.
Regardless of the strain, Dylan, 17, understands the sacrifices. He saved two lives. He says it was all in the line of duty. No big deal. But how many of his Haverford teammates can say they resuscitated someone when their heart stopped?
That doesn’t surprise Haverford football coach Joe Gallagher, who’s entering his 20th season as head coach of the Fords. His father was a volunteer firefighter in Chester. Gallagher has a deep appreciation for the work Dylan is doing.
“Dylan is the kid who will always spot someone who needs help, especially the younger kids,” Gallagher said. “Dylan is also very caring about the team and he really buys into and believes what all the coaches expect. You know he’s on board with you. He has great respect for coaches and authority, and that’s not always the case with teenagers. Dylan is in that mold. His character starts at home with his parents. I have a great appreciation for what Dylan does, but I have a great appreciation and respect for everyone who serves the community and our country.”
What inspires Dylan is easy—his brother David, who once played for Haverford and did a tour of duty as a medic in Afghanistan.
“I always saw David, and he joined when he was 16 and I was 8,” recalled Dylan, a three-year starter on the Fords’ football team who carries a 3.8 GPA and aspires to be a surgeon. “I used to hear his pager go off and fly out the door, I thought that was awesome. He would invite me to come down the firehouse and I was in parades. I was an 8-year-old kid playing on real fire trucks. I watched David and learned from him. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. My parents knew it was coming. My mother is a little bit of a worrywart, but she knows what I’m doing serves the community.”
When other teenagers turn 16, they may think about getting their permits to drive, look at the wider range of freedom they have from their parents, think about dating and staying out late. Not Dylan. His first thought was joining the Llanerch Fire Co., which he did July 29, 2010.
He attended school for training, and is currently attending another school towards working his way to becoming nationally ranked as a firefighter. Because he’s under the age of 18, he cannot be an interior firefighter, those who go into homes and put out fires. But Dylan does everything else, which is the grunt work of hooking up hose lines, and cleaning up sometimes nightmarish scenes.
“Dylan is an unbelievable kid from an amazing family, a very giving family that thinks about the community first,” Llanerch Fire Co. chief John Roberts said. “Dylan is high energy, and he’s smart, he sees things in seven different directions. He’s very rare. How many young people today think about doing something for their community first? He saved two lives last year. He does a lot of the bull work that needs to be done at a fire. He doesn’t hide from doing that. You don’t go looking for Dylan, he comes looking for you.”
Dylan has responded to 65 of the 130 calls Llanerch has received so far this year. That’s the third-highest total of responses in a house of 40 firefighters.
He is about to begin his senior year at Haverford. There is a lot , and Dylan’s senior class, which are the foundation of this team. But regardless of what happens this season, whether the Fords go undefeated and win the Central League, or lose every game by three touchdowns, Dylan has the solace of knowing he did something he won’t tell his coaches, teammates or classmates about.
In fact, he doesn’t take any credit at all for it.
“What’s the most worthwhile is being a volunteer and serving my community,” Dylan said. “It is the coolest thing in the world to see someone clinically dead to being alive minutes later. I had one older man who had a cardiac arrest, and the other was a drug overdose. You don’t think, you react and rely on your training. When they come back, it’s like a new life. It doesn’t register immediately. You’ll see 10 codes in your life that don’t get to you. It’s the bloody and gory stuff that does. I’ve seen motorcycle accidents that I had problems sleeping with. Those stay with you.”
Dylan is looking to attend Franklin & Marshall, or Brigham Young University. He’s been able to apply the rules and discipline he’s found as a firefighter to the football field—with a heavy dose of perspective.
“I am hard sometimes on guys for not paying attention to detail,” Dylan said. “I have a short temper with that, because when you respond to a call, it’s life or death. You miss a block in football, the quarterback gets sacked, I get chewed out by my coaches and you move on to the next play. In a fire, if you don’t get a supply line quick enough, the person inside that building will die. You have to know what everything on a fire truck does. You have to be fast and efficient. Every role is vital.
“You have to pay attention, both on a football field and in the fire service. You better understand something once. If I miss something on a football field, my coach yells at me. In a fire, if I miss something, it eats at you.”
Dylan also knows the perception, too. He gets teased about wearing a pager and being a volunteer firefighter by classmates and teammates. It doesn’t faze him. Not many understand what he truly does. But Dylan knows.
“I always have felt I was meant to do it,” he says.
Since climbing up on those trucks in that helmet that wobbled on his head.