Boston to Baghdad: The Man Behind New England's Shootout for Soldiers Event

M

ike Sullivan and lacrosse have long been in a love affair of sorts.

It began in 1980s in Bardonia, N.Y., when Sullivan started playing in middle school. Eventually he made it to West Point and played two years of Division I lacrosse at Army. “Sully,” as he’s affectionately known, even played club lacrosse while stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and while he was overseas in Kaiserslautern, Germany. His family also attends nearly every Boston Cannons home game. He serves on the board of the Eastern Massachusetts Chapter of US Lacrosse.

Now 45 and a lieutenant colonel, Sullivan has taken his passion to another realm: organizing Boston’s Shootout For Soldiers event, which will commence its third rendition Friday at 7 p.m. Eastern at UMass Lowell.

“While in Boston, I got an incredible feel for how lacrosse was growing, but also the patriotism and pride I saw in the community,” said Sullivan, who is wrapping up his doctorate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. “This was only a year after the Boston Marathon bombing, and things that caught my eye were everything from American flags to how much they seemed to respect the service members.”

So Sullivan reached out to Tyler Steinhardt, the executive director of Shootout for Soldiers, and they ironed out the details of expanding to Beantown. The event, which features 24 hours of lacrosse and raises money to support American veterans, started in 2015 with 600 players and 3,200 attendees raising $26,170.

That first year, Sullivan said there were plenty of hurdles, like having enough teams to play and working with Harvard, the host site. Last year, Shootout for Soldiers Boston expanded to the complex at UMass Lowell and raised $56,586. Forty-one teams registered for this year’s event with hopes of raising $75,000 for four national and two local military charities. 

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Sullivan said the point of Shootout for Soldiers Boston isn’t the money raised, but rather bringing the lacrosse community together and offering educational resources to veterans of the armed services. It helps, too, he said, that some “pretty cool” stories come out of the day.

“We start with the veterans game, and last year we had three Vietnam vets, one guy who brought his old bucket helmet and wooden stick with him,” Sullivan said. “It looked like he was stepping out of a history book. The goalie on my team lost his leg in Afghanistan in 2012, so he’s out there playing with a prosthetic limb.”

Stories aside, partners and fellow organizers say that Sullivan truly is the lifeblood of Shootout for Soldiers Boston.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Kevin Barney, the vice president and general manager of the Cannons. For this year’s event, the Cannons are expected to send Josh Hawkins and several other players to guest coach and interact with fans.

“The event itself is something the Cannons saw as a great way for us to support our military veterans on a national and local level,” Barney said. “It’s a unique event and great opportunity and something we’re happy to get behind. Then when Mike Sullivan took over, it made it easier. A great guy who’s supportive of us and we obviously wanted to return that and support something he’s very passionate about.”

Steinhardt went a step further, saying Sullivan has grabbed the event by the horns and “just run with it” the last few years. 

“If you look at a Venn diagram of people who love lacrosse and work in the military, Sully fits exactly in the middle,” Steinhardt said. “He’s a guy who cares deeply about both. It comes from a place of genuine care and authenticity that really drives the event. It’s what fueled Boston to grow so rapidly.”

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“If you look at a Venn diagram of people who love lacrosse and work in the military, Sully fits exactly in the middle.” — Tyler Steinhardt, executive director of Shootout for Soldiers
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While praise for Sullivan and Shootout for Soldiers Boston go hand in hand, the organization also hosts events on a national scale. In all, 11 cities ranging from Dana Point, Calif. to Aurora, Colo., to Baltimore hold similar days. A recent event in Baltimore raised a Shootout for Soldiers-record $201,738.

And if Sullivan’s plans unfold, their portfolio will expand even further.

On July 2, he’s shipping out to Baghdad, Iraq for a yearlong deployment. There’s a group of about 20 guys at the American embassy who play lacrosse on a turf field, Sullivan said, but often lack enough equipment. Thus, Sullivan, who works with Operation Baggataway, a charity that donates used lacrosse gear to service members, plans to bring sticks and more.

With that, he hopes to launch a Shootout for Soldiers Baghdad.

“There’s no way we can play for 24 hours, but even if we just do two or three hours and maybe do a live stream of what we’re doing and tell people about where the different players are from and their jobs in Iraq are, I think it’d be a neat opportunity,” Sullivan said. “It’d educate people about why we’re still there and how lacrosse weaves into everything we do. Once I get on the ground, I’m going to try and make it happen.”

Sullivan’s hope for expansion does not stop there, though. 

Upon returning from his deployment, the military will send him and his family to a currently unknown city, where he plans on starting another Shootout for Soldiers event. And even while stationed in Baghdad, Sullivan plans on helping organize the Boston event in 2018, much to his wife’s chagrin.

He’ll have plenty of help, though, mainly Rachael Rennie, who will take over and he dubbed his “partner in crime.” 

“Mike’s been a huge all-around life mentor,” Rennie said. “I’m going to miss him like crazy and it’ll be sad to see him go, but I’m looking forward to filling his shoes. I know what we need to do, I just have to set aside the time. It’ll be a struggle for sure, but I’m excited for it.”

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All things considered, Shootout for Soldiers Boston has grown by leaps and bounds, with Sullivan at the center of it all.

It’s led to guys like Joe Cardona, the long snapper for the New England Patriots, and Margo McAuley, a broadcaster on Lacrosse Sports Network, coming out. This year’s event will even feature a Tufts alumni team, with former head coach Mike Daly and current head coach Casey D’Annolfo expected to show.

But, at the end of the day, Sullivan has a simple message regarding what Shootout for Soldiers Boston is all about.

“I tell everyone I get the opportunity to tell, the service members that deploy, we have the easier job, as much as people don’t believe me,” Sullivan said. “It’s the spouses, the husbands, the wives, the same-sex partners that stay back who I think have the much tougher job. This day really lets us all come together and experience what that’s all about.”

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Lt. Col. Mike Sullivan, organizer of this weekend's Shootout for Soldiers in Boston, deploys to Iraq July 2.
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PHOTO COURTESY OF SHOOTOUT FOR SOLDIERS
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PHOTO COURTESY OF SHOOTOUT FOR SOLDIERS
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Lt. Col. Mike Sullivan, a former Army lacrosse player, deploys to Baghdad on July 2.
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“Sully” organizes Shootout for Soldiers Boston, which will draw 41 teams this weekend to UMass Lowell with hopes of raising at least $75,000 for national and local military charities.

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