Serendipity brings two men together on the football field, and in the rest of life

How Sarah Spain and a team at ESPN reported the amazing true tale of a father and son who found each other without knowing who they were

Serendipity brings two men together on the football field, and in the rest of life

Astory that garners wide acclaim, gets multiple plays across ESPN and draws tweets from Reese Witherspoon is not your everyday deadline fare. For most writers, it will never happen. But Sarah Spain experienced all of that with her first long-form narrative piece.

“Runs in the Family” was produced as a piece for the ESPN documentary program E:60 and a 5,000-word narrative published in September 2018 on It centers on NFL running backs coach, Deland McCullough, who grew up as an adopted son in a tough neighborhood in Youngstown, Ohio. McCullough never knew who his father was or had much fatherly influence in his life until, in his senior year of high school, he met a college football recruiter named Sherman Smith. The story weaves McCullough’s longing with the stories of his biological mother, a teenager who gave up her baby to adoption without telling the father she was pregnant; McCullough’s adoptive mother, who struggled with men and money but always supported her sons; and Smith, who becomes McCullough’s mentor for more than two decades, through college and into a coaching career. Smith becomes the father figure McCullough never had without either knowing … well, read the story and let Spain tell you.

Sarah SpainSpain, 38, who has worked for ESPN since 2010 and writes for espnW, never expected McCullough’s story to touch people the way it has. She knew it was a good story, but she didn’t know it would reach people far beyond the sports world.

“We got crazy, crazy interest from some people,” she said. “Reese Witherspoon tweeted about it, Will Smith, Lee Daniels, 20th Century Fox, Channing Tatum’s production company – the best of the best are interested.

“That’s a long road though, and we’ll see what comes next. But there is a lot more to the story that wasn’t in this piece because of time and space constraints. It would be a fantastic movie.”

While Spain writes opinion pieces and other essays for ESPN, most of her time at the network is spent working on her national radio show, Spain and Fritz, and the podcast That’s What She Said. Narrative writing was not part of her portfolio. In fact, her original career goal was to make it in improv and work on Saturday Night Live. A graduate of Cornell University, where she was a heptathlete, she followed that dream after college.

“I moved to L.A. and I did that for a bit,” she said. “I found that I had a knack for sports reporting and I moved back to Chicago to cover my own teams, the teams I grew up watching, and I’ve just been here ever since.”

The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Johnson’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen. We start with a few set-up questions, then dive directly into the text of the story.  Continue reading here