The e-mail arrived from an island off Portugal. A former Minnesota high school basketball coach on vacation sent a note after taking a break from sightseeing to read my profile of former Tartan star Jake Sullivan.
The coach was amazed to learn about Sullivan’s private battle with mental illness and his remarkable journey to happiness and hope through faith.
Similar reactions have poured in via e-mail and social media in response to my longform profile of Sullivan and his family, which includes his wife, Janel, and six kids — three biological and three adopted from Ghana.
Reaction from readers has been overwhelming and uplifting. Many remembered Sullivan’s record-setting basketball career at Tartan but were stunned to learn that, privately, he suffered from a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder while in high school and at Iowa State.
A few readers have shared their own personal battles with mental illness by noting that Sullivan’s story gives them hope. That was his mission in allowing me to tell his story. He wanted to give hope to those who suffer in silence.
Hope was a central theme in our conversations and in writing his story. As a teenager, Sullivan suffered without hope in dealing with his OCD. He felt trapped. Over time, he learned to manage his condition by understanding anxiety triggers while turning to faith for strength.
Sullivan’s life story has many layers between his mental health, journey to faith, missionary work in Africa and his family’s challenges last year when Janel stayed in Africa for nearly seven months while trying to finalize the problematic adoption an 11-year-old boy diagnosed with HIV.
This was the most comprehensive story I have authored in nearly three decades as a sportswriter. Longform storytelling can be tricky in the Twitter age of brevity, but my editors and I realized that Sullivan’s story deserved to be told in a manner that dug deep below the surface.
Readers have asked how and when this project started. Some background:
I moved to Minnesota in January 2000 and got to know Jake while covering his senior season as a Star Tribune preps writer. I hadn’t seen him since he graduated high school.
I learned last summer that Sullivan had moved back to the Twin Cities from Iowa to work at Grace Church in Eden Prairie. A mutual friend told me a little about Sullivan’s family dynamics with the adoptions.
I invited Jake to lunch last July to pitch a story, not knowing the full scope. We talked about his OCD, his faith and his family. His wife was in Ghana at the time, hoping to bring home Julius, their seventh child, but it wasn’t going well and he wasn’t sure when she would be home.
I told Jake that I would love to tell his story but it would be time-consuming and personal. He had no hesitation, offering unlimited access to him and his family. My colleague, photojournalist Aaron Lavinsky, joined me on the project.
We conducted about a dozen interviews over several months. Lavinsky and I observed Sullivan deliver a passionate sermon at a high school ministry night at Grace Church in the fall.
We also spent a weekday morning with his family at their home. Jake opened the door after his alarm went off, so that we could see what a typical morning looked like getting six kids ready for school.
Sullivan also allowed us to join his family at the airport in early November when Janel returned from Ghana. Janel and I met for several hours a few weeks later to talk about her experience living in a remote village to care for Julius and 40 orphans while being away from her family.
In his sermon at the youth night, Sullivan discussed the need to have “authentic vulnerability” in deepening one’s faith. He revealed his own vulnerability in sharing his powerful story with the hope of helping others.