Oct. 28, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
Four years ago this weekend, Inky Johnson walked to midfield with a handful of his teammates for the coin toss. Then-coach Phillip Fulmer named Johnson a captain for Tennessee's home game against South Carolina. He walked out to the large Power T wearing his No. 29 jersey because 29 is just something special for Johnson.
Johnson always played well against the Gamecocks, and some of his biggest hits as a defensive back were against Steve Spurrier's team. So naming him captain for a crucial SEC East game made sense.
Only Johnson didn't play a down in that 2007 game.
More than a year earlier, on Sept. 9, 2006, Johnson suffered a life-threatening injury on the field against Air Force. With just a few minutes to play in the game, Johnson went for a tackle and jammed his shoulder into the body of the Air Force running back Justin Handley. The hit caused nerve damage in Johnson's right shoulder and ended his playing career.
Since then, Johnson has detailed his story in his autobiography, Inky: An Amazing Story of Faith and Perseverance. He's mentoring underprivileged youth in Knoxville and his hometown of Atlanta. And he's speaking to crowds about his faith, his ability to overcome adversity and his ability to accept a change of plans from his NFL dreams..
One Bible verse in particular -- Jeremiah 29:11 -- has always been inspirational for Johnson.
"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future," the verse reads.
Johnson once thought those plans to prosper included a career in the NFL. Johnson worked hard to get out of the dangerous streets of Kirkwood, a Southeast section of Atlanta where survival was more important than SAT scores. A football scholarship to Tennessee punched his ticket out of town, and Johnson was making the most of his opportunity.
But Johnson's future plans changed in an instant during the Vols' second game of the 2006 season.
His tackle against Air Force left him motionless on the field as team doctors and trainers rushed to his side. Dr. Russ Betcher, team doctor at the time, discovered on the field that Johnson's eyelid was drooping, a sign of nerve damage called Horner's Syndrome. Spotting the symptom allowed doctors at UT Medical Center to stop internal bleeding and ultimately save Johnson's life.
Still, five torn nerves in Johnson's upper arm could not be repaired. Surgery helped some, and even a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota held promise. But Johnson mostly remembered waking up at UT Medical Center the morning after his injury when reality set in: He wasn't going to play football again.
Johnson writes in his book: "Now, here I was lying in a hospital bed, stinking to high heaven from the dried game sweat with a right arm and shoulder I couldn't feel. And I was wrapped up like I'd been shot with a shotgun -- and yet things weren't all bad. I really felt blessed in those moments."
Johnson said he remembers when people asked how he was doing and the only words he could say were, "I'm blessed."
"I think it kind of shocked a lot of people that I was able to handle the situation the way I handled it," Johnson said in an interview with UTSports.com. "People were coming into the room and were all sad because of everything that happened, all down on their spirits and low. I just had to let them know that I was going to be all right. There's a life after this. Life goes on. Whatever God puts in your life, you've got to embrace it and keep going."
According to Johnson, drugs and violence surrounded him in Kirkwood. He and his family moved five times in nine years, all within Kirkwood. Stability was non-existent. He loved his Kirkwood friends and his family. He just knew to survive he had to get out.
So, even while lying on a bed at UT Medical Center in fall 2006, Johnson knew that a part of him was victorious.
"I can't help anybody, including myself, if I live my life always thinking about what I can't do and what I lost," Johnson writes in his book. "I refuse to do that. I live life with the joy of what I've gained so far in my journey."
Even after nerve repair surgery at the Mayo Clinic he was victorious. His arm and shoulder would never be the same, and he was told he would be in the hospital 17 days for recovery. He was discharged after three days.
Johnson says he learned much of his positive outlook and unwavering faith at Tennessee.
"The opportunity to play at Tennessee taught me a lot of lessons in life," Johnson said. "It made me a better man and molded and shaped my character in a lot of different ways I don't think could have happened without the game of football. That's what I try to tell people nowadays, that the game of football is a direct correlation to life.
"I'm blessed to have played at the University of Tennessee and the great tradition that it carries. When I think of Tennessee, I think of a very strong tradition, a great program, a great school. I'm proud that I was able to go to the University of Tennessee."
Ask anyone who was around Johnson during his days at Tennessee, and they'll say they were proud to be around Johnson.
The legacy Johnson left at Tennessee is far-reaching, and that's part of the reason he was named a legend for Saturday's game against the Gamecocks (TV: ESPN2, 7:15 p.m. ET). Others have more impressive statistics -- Johnson's best season was in 2005 with 30 tackles, a sack and eight passes broken up -- but it's his legacy off the field that continues to reach Vols, former, current and future.
Each morning, he sends more than 100 text messages with words of encouragement to old teammates, guys in the NFL, current UT players and even some of youth he mentors in Knoxville and Atlanta.
Johnson's life has been a series of big moments, from when he survived the tough streets of Kirkwood and overcame the odds of signing a football scholarship out of Crim High School, to when he decided to embrace the positive of his career-ending injury rather than focus on the negative.
He's a go-getter, as defined by one of his own poems.
"The GO-GETTERS are known as LEGENDS, not SUPERSTARS," the poem reads.
Johnson is, by all accounts, a legend.
"That's a huge honor that I thank God for," Johnson said. "That's what my life is about, leaving a legacy. That comes in every aspect of my life, not just in the sports arena. It comes with carrying myself like a man with integrity and character. It comes with treating others the way I would like to be treated. It comes with showing other people respect.
"Being a legend of the football game speaks volumes about me and my family and all the things we've been through in our life. It's a big moment."