Iowa football newcomer Justice Sullivan all about strength

On and off the field, he has shown his grit

Justice Sullivan was all smiles in the team huddle after defeating Maple Grove, 38-14, at Eden Prairie High School in 20
Justice Sullivan was all smiles in the team huddle after defeating Maple Grove, 38-14, at Eden Prairie High School in 2018. Justice was adopted by Jake and Janel Sullivan when he was about eight years old from Ghana and, starting Monday, will be a University of Iowa football player. (Aaron Lavinsky/Minneapolis Star Tribune)

A crowd of Eden Prairie, Minn., football players envelops Justice Sullivan as he casually pushes his right foot over a barbell loaded with 275 pounds during his junior year.

He tucks in his shirt, then rolls up his shorts, takes a step, grips the bar and sets his stance. Within a second, he’s pulling the weight to his chest, catching it with his legs wide.

He smiles, standing tall with the weight on his chest before dropping it to the ground.

“College recruiters would come in to see me his sophomore year because they couldn’t talk to him,” Eden Prairie head coach Mike Grant said. “But they’d look out there and go, ‘Well that’s obviously him.’”

Iowa won the recruiting battle for the 6-foot-1, 220-pound defensive end who also garnered interest from Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa State and Kansas.

Sullivan packed his bags on Friday morning to leave for Iowa City. He starts school Monday.

“I started my seventh grade year lifting in the morning and I kind of thought to myself, ‘If I keep this up, I can get my college paid for.’ That would be really awesome,” Sullivan said.

Things weren’t always so awesome.

Born in Ghana, Justice was adopted by Jake and Janel Sullivan at 8 years old in 2011 and moved to Huxley, Iowa. They were charmed by something he was discriminated for.

“I zoomed in on the picture and saw this stubble of orange-colored hair,” Janel said.


No matter how old, Jake and Janel saw it as fate: their two biological children, JJ and Jayla, also had red hair.

Justice has albinism, a genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin found in skin, hair or eyes. But many people in Ghana don’t understand albinism. They believe in myths that people with albinism never die, or they’re cursed. As a result, violence against people with albinism is common.

Justice’s birth mother hoped his adoption would provide him a better life in the United States. It wasn’t easy at first. He spent one-quarter of a school year in kindergarten, the next quarter in first grade then skipped second grade to start third grade.

But Justice’s native tongue was Twi. So Jake, a former Iowa State basketball star, put him in basketball to learn English.

“I remember him the first time on the basketball court, dribbling the wrong way,” Jake said.

JJ, Justice’s adopted brother, knew before anyone else how strong Sullivan was. Having a new brother meant a new roommate — and wrestling partner.

“He broke my arm when I was in kindergarten,” JJ said. “He jumped on me.”

Justice laughs over the phone when he hears the story again. Inspired by WWE, Justice said the two took turns jumping on each other from the couch with pillows across their chests for protection.


“I don’t know why he didn’t take his arm out from under the pillow, but I landed straight on him.” Justice said.

Janel and Jake now have six children. JJ, 14, Jayla, 12, and Jacoby, 6, are their biological children. They adopted Jasara, 9, and Jennifer, 13 from Ghana after Justice.

They believe it’s important Justice doesn’t forget his roots, which is why he visits his birth mother and brother in Ghana every year through the family’s nonprofit organization Royal Promise, which provides orphan care, medical aid and a religious-based education to families in Ghana.

This past winter break, Justice spent the first 10 days in Ghana alone for the first time, visiting a family he sponsors by working part-time as a Door Dash delivery driver.

“I realized that, at the flip of a coin, that could’ve been me,” Justice said.

The ostracism Justice faced in Ghana as a kid was dangerous to him and his family. He said the experience of growing up as a Black boy in a white family in small town Iowa was different. He wasn’t hated.

But this summer, the family, now living in Eden Prairie, Minn., 12 miles southwest of Minneapolis, had conversations surrounding race relations in America.

“We’ve always been open and honest with Justice. If he’s accused of a crime, he’s guilty until proven innocent,” Jake said. “If JJ, our biological son, is accused of a crime, he’s innocent until proven guilty. That’s the reality in the context of our nation.”

Moving from Huxley to Eden Prairie, Justice enjoyed a more diverse blend of cultures at school.


The family believes it’s important to stand up against injustice, with intention rooted in their Christian values. This summer, Justice and his mother peacefully walked through the streets of Minneapolis to visit George Floyd’s grave and pray with a church group. He said he could feel an omnipresent sadness in the rubble of the city, but the people around him brought hope.

“It was good to see people sticking together and standing up for something,” Justice said.

Committing to Iowa

Cade Kramer, a friend and teammate of Sullivan’s at Eden Prairie, remembers the first time Coach Grant introduced Justice to the team in the spring of their freshman year.

“Everyone was super confused,” Kramer said. “He looked a lot older than he was.”

Eden Prairie’s football program provided an opportunity for Justice to get noticed by colleges. The Class 6A school was a state runner-up in 2018 and came into the abbreviated 2020 season, winning its state section, ranked No. 1. But Grant said Justice wanted the recruitment process over with.

“Some kids want to go on five recruiting visits and be told how great they are by everybody, and Justice doesn’t need that,” Grant said.

Kramer vividly remembers the day Justice came over to his house after receiving the Iowa offer.

“He didn’t really say, but I could tell he was super happy,” Kramer said. “That was a place that felt like home to him.”

Through his sophomore and junior years, Justice amassed 58 tackles, including 19 for loss and 23 solo, earning all-Metro and second-team all-state honors. He forced two fumbles and had two fumble recoveries.


He tried to play with a sprained ankle during his senior year, but with only seven games on the schedule due to COVID-19, it wasn’t worth it.

The irony of Justice’s commitment to Iowa is Jake was one of Iowa State’s best basketball players, holding school records for free-throw percentage (89.6) and 3-pointers made (270). But Jake said Justice actually is carrying on a family tradition he didn’t.

“When I went to Iowa State, I still remember my grandma saying, ‘I hope you play well, but I’m going for the Hawkeyes,’” said Jake, who already has an Iowa football T-shirt. “As the process played out, Iowa State was not going to recruit him further and for whatever reason, Iowa did.”


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