"The moment I figured out that it didn’t matter what happened in my life, God has a plan and is in control, life didn’t stand a chance.”
Those were the words of Inky Johnson at Oneida High School’s Performing Arts Center Saturday evening, where he was speaking at a fund-raiser for Play With No Boundaries.
Johnson, a former University of Tennessee football player whose career was ended by a life-threatening injury that left him permanently unable to use his right arm, spends his days now as an inspirational speaker, taking his life story to all who will lend an ear.
Inspirational speakers are, quite frankly, a dime or dozen.
But few inspirational speakers have a story of faith and perseverance, or speak with the authority, of Inky Johnson.
How do you sum up — for the sake of a 500-to-600-word column — the life of someone like Inky Johnson? A kid who grew up in inner-city Atlanta, in a two bedroom home with 13 other family members . . . a kid who slept on the floor, and watched rats run across the room at night . . . a kid who shook roaches out of his coat before school . . . a kid who attended Crim High School, where the drop-out rate is higher than the graduation rate.
Think we have it bad in economically-depressed Scott County, Tennessee? Try growing up in Kirkwood near downtown Atlanta, where seeing people get shot or seeing people go to prison are more common than seeing people leave the neighborhood to achieve something great in life.
At a young age, Johnson and his friends were talking about their dreams of playing Division I college football and going on to the NFL, of making it to the major leagues. Anything to make it out of the inner city. Anything to change the financial future of their family.
Typical childhood dream stuff. Except Inky Johnson was a bit exceptional. By the age of seven, he was working on his football drills until dark, then begging his mother to turn the headlights of her vehicle on the field so he could work some more. She did. She and his father sacrificed a lot for him, Johnson said.
Still, Division I football was a long shot. Especially for a kid from Crim High School — nicknamed Crime High School because of its lowly reputation. Scouts routinely told Johnson he didn’t have a shot; that he might not graduate high school, much less make it to college.
After suffering season-ending injuries the first game of his sophomore and junior seasons, first an ankle and then a broken clavicle, Johnson found himself ready to enter his senior season with no college scholarship offers.
To make a long story short, University of Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer saw something in Johnson. He extended an offer, with a simple message: “I believe in you.” Johnson accepted.
Fulmer was criticized for using a precious scholarship on a no-name cornerback, who was 5-9, 153 lbs. soaking wet. The NCAA restricts the number of scholarships schools can offer each year, and you can’t keep up with the Alabamas and Floridas in the SEC by offering no-name kids in inner-city Atlanta simply because you want to feel good about their story.
But Johnson didn’t let his coach down. Before his freshman season ended in Knoxville, he had worked his way into the starting lineup on special teams. By his sophomore season, he was starting at cornerback. By the start of his junior season, he was running a 4.3 forty and bench-pressing 315 lbs. He was having routine chats with NFL scouts. It appeared his life, and the lives of his family, were about to change. He recalls calling his grandmother before the 2006 season opened and saying, “Grandma, our lives are about to change forever.”
Instead, Johnson woke up in a hospital room two weeks later to have a doctor tell him that surgery had saved his life after an otherwise routine collision on the football field during a game against the Air Force Academy proved to be life-threatening, but his football playing days were done. Forever. No NFL. No paychecks. A lifetime of work and preparation, gone forever.
What’s more, Johnson’s injury left him permanently unable to use his right arm. The guy who worked so hard to achieve his dreams, and was on the cusp of doing so, was suddenly having to learn to write his name all over again, had to have help bathing and getting dressed.
“What do you do in life when all your options are taken away in an instant?” Johnson said.
Just about anyone would have forgiven him if he had been bitter. Just about anyone would have forgiven him if he had blamed his misfortune on circumstances that were out of his control.
Johnson told fate to get behind him. He turned misfortune into a faith-strengthening experience. He recalls a moment outside the Mayo Clinic, where doctors were determining the best way forward for him. None of his treatment options were guarantees; all carried risks.
He had one night to sleep on his decision.
“All my life I had claimed to be a man of faith,” he said. “But at that moment, I found myself questioning God. A faith that can be questioned is a faith that can’t be trusted.”
Johnson went back to the clinic and told doctors that they could do whatever they needed to do, but his situation was out of their hands.
His situation was in higher hands.
“It wasn’t me. It wasn’t the doctors. It was by the grace of God that I was even alive,” Johnson said. “It was by his unmerited favor.”
Still, it would have been easy to drop out of school and go home. Wasn’t football the very reason he was in college to start with?
But Johnson had made a promise to his grandmother, sitting on their front porch: he would become the first person in his family to graduate college.
He stuck with it. He rehabbed while attending classes. He relied on his former teammates to get him up when he was down. And he graduated the University of Tennessee with a master’s degree.
It isn’t every day that you sit through an inspirational speaker’s spiel and see grown men fighting to hold back tears. But Johnson isn’t just any inspirational speaker.
In football, it’s cliche to say that players are ready to run through a wall after listening to their coach give a fiery pregame speech.
After listening to Inky Johnson for an hour, you’re ready to run through life’s walls. And that’s just what Inky Johnson has spent most of his life doing.
■ Ben Garrett is editor of the Independent Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.