When Justice Sullivan committed to Iowa in late 2019, it wasn’t just about finding the right football program, it was about finding a home. So, for Justice’s father and former Iowa State basketball guard Jake, trading in the Cardinal and Gold for the Black and Gold is something he’s happy to do.
Justice, a 6-2, 205-pound defensive end/linebacker out of Eden Prairie, Minn., officially committed to be a Hawkeye in November after receiving offers from Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota, which is less than a 24-minute drive from his hometown.
Jake, who started at ISU for four years from 2000-2004, also was an elite athlete. He averaged 14.7 points per game for the Cyclones, his standout year coming as a junior when his average spiked to 17.0 ppg.
It’s not a biological comparison: Justice was born in Ghana and moved to the United States at eight years old when he was adopted. But Jake helps push Justice to be the best he can be both on and off the football field – they even train together and find those things in common from Jake’s basketball days – and he doesn’t sugar coat the mistakes. That work ethic is a product of Justice’s environment.
“He’s always 100 percent honest and that really helps me to see where I’m at,” Justice said. “For me, when he thought I was doing a good job then I was doing a good job… In sports he really helped push me to try and become better.”
For Jake and his wife, Janel, it’s about raising their children to “pursue [their] passions” with a “level of excellence,” as Jake says. To them, it doesn’t matter what it is – it could range from the football field to a traditional job – but that it should be lived through and through in every aspect.
“That’s really what Justice has done,” Jake said. “As he became a seventh or eighth grader, it became clear that his passion was on the football field. He loved football; he loved the culture and the weight room and everything that goes with football, so our challenge to him is, ‘OK, you’re passionate about it, now pursue it with excellence.’”
That means going into every situation, whether it be a practice, game, watching film or a meeting with coaches, with that mentality. As Justice looked at schools and football programs with his parents, Iowa fit that bill.
“It’s just a perfect fit for him; his mentality and style and all the other things that go along with it,” Jake said. “For us too, I think Kirk Ferentz does one of the best jobs in the country just developing young men, not just football players but young men to succeed in life. That’s really what we want as parents for Justice.”
With Jake’s guidance behind him, two main things were on Justice’s mind when looking at programs: a place where he was truly wanted with a coaching staff that wouldn’t just tell him what he wanted to hear.
Justice didn’t want to be just another athlete, a fourth or fifth choice that was offered just because, and he didn’t want to have a completely different experience when he stepped on campus as a student-athlete from the one he was promised while being recruited.
“There were a lot of people saying different stuff, and it would have been so easy to go with the people who are telling you how great you are, how awesome you are, a bunch of different things,” Justice said. “But I had to look at it from where I would fit in and where I would thrive, and that was one way that I really benefitted from having [my dad] by my side.”
Finding Iowa was more than just finding a football program. Going through a Division I program, Jake knows firsthand the struggles that an athlete endures and that most don’t even reach their goals of seeing steady playing time.
Jake has been vocal about his mental health struggles in the past – from a young age he suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder – and Justice finding an overall environment where he would be happy with classes, the people he surrounds himself with, and other, non-athletic college experiences.
“As he began to think Iowa was going to be a fit for him, I said, ‘I want you to take some time and imagine that you never step on the football field. Let’s imagine worst case scenario… Are you still going to be happy?’” Jake recalled.
Growing up through sports, Jake discovered that athletics was an escape from his struggle with mental health. Realizing that and talking about it has been key to bringing awareness to struggles that not only athletes, but people all over the world go through.
“You’re always looking to escape if you suffer from a mental illness,” Jake said. “And I think for a lot of young people, athletics becomes that escape. For moments in time you can run from all your problems and hide out in that sport where it all just kind of goes away.”
Although Justice will be almost 4.5 hours away from home instead of just 30 minutes when the stress of juggling football and school and a social life hits, the advice his father has given him and the way he wants to lead his life sticks with him.
It’s not just talking about what he’s going through and finding a home in Iowa City even off the football field, it’s about being true to his faith, too. That was a driving force for Jake in his healing from OCD, and it’s in Justice’s plans for staying healthy, too. The church they attended when they lived in Iowa has a campus in Iowa City that Justice plans to attend.
“One of the main ways [my dad] kind of thought it would be good for me is, ‘Once you get to college a lot of people like to party, a lot of people like to do things, but that will never sustain you, that will never fill you up,’” Justice said.