Inky Johnson says an effort to bring a special needs playground to Oneida City Park is an effort that will inspire others, and have a positive impact on many for generations to come.
Speaking at a Saturday fundraiser for Play With No Boundaries, the in-the-works all-inclusive playground at the park, the former Vol praised perseverance of chief organizer Amy Martin while telling his own life story of perseverance and faith.
After overcoming his start as a kid in the inner city of Atlanta, as a student at a high school where the dropout rate was higher than the graduation rate, Johnson achieved what most college recruiters told him he would never do by obtaining a scholarship at the University of Tennessee. He was then on course for an NFL career — which could have forever changed the financial fortunes of his family back in Atlanta’s Kirkwood community, where he grew up as one of 14 family members in a two-bedroom home — before suffering a career-ending injury in a 2006 game against the Air Force Academy at Neyland Stadium.
With his dreams of a career in football out the window, Johnson — who was left permanently disabled by his injury, unable to use his right arm — instead became an inspirational speaker, traveling far and wide with his message of faith and perseverance.
“Anytime something is orchestrated by God, it has a greater purpose and no man or woman can stop it,” Johnson said of the Play With No Boundaries fund-raising effort, which has resulted in more than $100,000 in just over two years.
“This playground is gonna change a lot of lives,” Johnson added. “It’s gonna be a blessing for a lot of people.”
Martin, who was inspired to bring the playground to the city park after seeing her special needs son, Joseph, struggle to play on conventional playground equipment, enlisted the help of her friends and has held a number of roadblocks, community events and other fund-raisers to slowly add money towards the $173,000 project. Once the funding is in place, the playground, which is already designed, will replace the seldom-used volleyball court adjacent to the park’s gymnasium and community center.
During a more than hour-long talk that left few dry eyes in the audience and finished with Johnson selling out the supply of his books he brought with him to Oneida, he said the tireless efforts of Martin and her friends are an example of finishing what you start — something he learned himself at the University of Tennessee.
After having an opportunity to leave school and return to Kirkwood after his football career ended in September of his junior year in Knoxville, Johnson said he decided to keep a promise he made to his grandmother on her front porch.
“I told her that I would be the first person in our family to graduate college, no matter what,” he said. “I didn’t know (the injury) was going to happen, but I still had to finish what I started.”
Johnson graduated UT with a master’s degree, in the process keeping his promise to his grandmother.
“You gotta stay out of God’s way; that’s when God is at his best,” Johnson said. “That’s why I admire Amy and her vision.”