I knew Inky Johnson's story and his powerful, keen ability to connect with people through that story, but I'd never heard the former Tennessee football player-turned-motivational speaker do his thing in person.
So I drove up to Clarksville, Tenn., on the afternoon of March 15 to hear Johnson address the Austin Peay football program -- an FCS program that has won just one game since 2012, something I wrote about on National Signing Day. (The Govs could use the motivation, right??)
Johnson's energy and message was as advertised. You could sense that he reached the players and coaches - and a reporter lingering in the back - in an authentic and meaningful way. He's uniquely dynamic in his delivery and tone. Put it this way: No one was checking their phones during his 45 minutes in front of the room.
For those unfamiliar with the story: The Atlanta native had overcome numerous obstacles - including a crime-ridden neighborhood and being an undersized athlete - to land at the doorstep of his lifelong dream: playing in the NFL.
And then, in an instant, it was all taken away. Johnson had labored for literally thousands of hours to turn himself into a first-round projection, and then it was all gone. The money ... gone. The dream ... gone.
Late in Tennessee's game against Air Force on Sept. 9, 2006, Johnson sprinted over to tackle a player in the open field. He jolted the receiver out of bounds, but his body immediately went limp as he fell to the turf. He was carted off and, for a while, it appeared as if his life would be in danger. He recovered, but doctors told him that his football career was over.
As Johnson encountered friends, family and eventually strangers, he figured out that there was thunder in his story. He could inspire and encourage many, many people, particularly young athletes. He has developed a voice and message over the past decade or so. ESPN even did a lengthy feature on his new, blossoming career - and his ability to turn tragedy into triumph.
Here, watch him in action:
After he spoke to Austin Peay's football team that afternoon, I asked if Johnson had a few minutes to talk about ... talking. I wanted to know the backstory on his career and where it might be heading from here. I planned to run the interview on 247Sports in the days or weeks after interviewing him.
But that never happened.
I drove back to Nashville and met my editor, who had asked to come over to my home. I was spooked but didn't want to overreact. How bad could it be? I had just started the job in November, about four months earlier.
I greeted my editor as he pulled up to my house. He exited his car and I said, 'I'm a little freaked out, man. What's going on?'
He said, 'Well, do you want the bad news now?'
I think I was on the second or third step - I hadn't even made it to the front door - when he told me that my position at the company had been eliminated, effective immediately. It was perhaps the most stunning news I'd ever received. I probably turned ghostly white and had my jaw on the floor as we talked through it for 10 or 15 minutes. I still admire my editor's calm and sincerity in a difficult moment for him.
So, going back to my afternoon, explain to me that sequence of events. How is it even remotely possible that I could encounter Johnson and his story of attitude and perspective in the face of profound adversity - only to return home to find new adversity on my doorstep (literally)? I had no idea what I was about to walk into.
Makes you wonder, doesn't it? It's those kinds of things that build me up and encourage me that, 'you know what, God is in control of my life and his plans are dang-sure higher and better than my plans.' It's these events - not-so-coincidental, if you ask me - that have kept me afloat in a season of storm after storm.
I'm still floating along. Still here. By God's grace, I'm moving forward with a sincere hope about the future.
Here's my Q-and-A with Inky from that day, about how he started down a new path as a motivational speaker when his dream of being an NFL player abruptly ended. He hints that the "alternate" path was the correct one all along, something I alluded to this week.
I'm particularly struck by some of his responses to my questions, particularly a topic I've touched on several times: losing yourself in the pursuit of a dream - and the coming to senses that occurs on the back side of that.
To say the least, I have immense respect for Johnson, his strength and his commitment to helping people via his own story. His words that day wound up inspiring me in an incredibly personal way. I'm again left grateful and hopeful.
INKY JOHNSON/March 15, 2017
“I didn’t think what I had been through and experienced was anything special, because where I grew up, my particular area in Atlanta, everybody went through similar situations - and sometimes even worse.
“It wasn’t until I got injured that - I was always big on serving. I was part of Habitat for Humanity with the team. Whenever we had projects in the community, I would go. I would just go out and serve. After I got injured, people would always want to know how I was doing. They would ask questions - ‘How are you doing?’ It would strike up like an informal Q-and-A. Everybody would just pay attention. Everyone would just stop what they were doing.
“One day, (former Tennessee and New England linebacker) Jerod Mayo, one of my best friends, said ‘Ink, you might want to look into speaking.’ I was like, ‘Nah, I’m good.’ It was after my injury. I was trying to find my way. I went over to a place called the Wesley House, in Knoxville. They invited me to come and speak. I went and had no idea what I was doing, but we had a great time.
“And it felt right. I got the same feeling that I got when I played ball, and I still do. When I got that feeling, I prayed that night and was like, ‘Lord, I don’t know if this is what you want me to do with my life, but if it is, I submit and let’s go.’ Ever since that point, opportunities have come, gradually. I just accepted them, embraced them. I don’t even carry a business card. I’ve never carried a business card, and I’ve been speaking for 11 years now - ever since my injury. It’s worked out.”
(How do you define purpose in this vocation that you found - or, rather, the one that found you?)
“I’m a firm believer that everything we do in life should have a greater purpose than just ourselves, because when we face opposition and adversity and rough patches, the driving force for why we do it is very important. When it’s just about people, themselves, and they hit adversity or something tough, they quit. Because it’s just about them. They don’t have a greater purpose why they’re doing it. So with me, my mission and my life’s work is just to serve. With the things I’ve been through and what I’ve been dealt, it’s to figure out a way to add value to every person in life I come in contact with, every environment that I go into. I may not see it right away, but that’s not going to stop me from living my life the way that I want to live it and doing things the way I want to do it. It’s just a part of who I am.”
(In particular, what does it mean when you speak with young people? Do they sometimes wind up influencing you as much as you influence them?)
“It means the world to me. I remember when I was a young athlete. You don’t think about a lot outside of athletics. You’re a young jock. You play ball. You can run fast, jump high. Everybody thinks they’re going to the next level, whether it’s the NFL or NBA. A lot of times, they miss the boat on the purpose of the platform, which is sports. They miss the boat on the mentality that it can create.
“So when I speak to them, I’m speaking to them about life - the mentality, the spirit, the dedication, the commitment. I want to make sure they understand why you run sprints, why you do extra work, why you never cheat, why you hold your teammates accountable and why you let them do the same for you. It’s deeper than just sport; you’re talking about cultivating a relationship - not only a relationship, but a spirit, a mentality, a dedication, a commitment that can sustain you for the rest of your life, if you go about it the right way. And I want guys not to miss the boat on that aspect. When I get a chance to speak to them, it’s very fulfilling and very rewarding. I don’t want them to miss the boat on what the game can produce.”
(Amid a hectic schedule - and given how emotional your talks often are - is it challenging to keep your energy going at a high level?)
“It gets challenging because of the way that I live my life. I could simply go places and chill and sleep in a hotel. A lot of times, I go places and then turn right back around. I very seldom stay the night anywhere. I go places and get back home to my wife and my children, if they’re not traveling with me. Because of the standard and the expectation that I have for me as a man, as a father and as a husband, I’m constantly trying to grow as a servant. I’m constantly trying to grow. With that aspect, it gets challenging, because I have an accountability to myself.
“But also just with the mentality that I had as an athlete, I take that to speaking. I look at this as ‘if I’m not in shape, if I don’t eat right, if I don’t work out,’ then I can’t be the best possible servant that I could be and do the work that I feel like I’ve been called to do.”
(How old are your kids?)
“Five and 6. Five-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. Man, they keep me busy.”
(How many speaking dates have you had in the past 11 years?)
“I know the past three years, I’ve been up around 200 dates. That’s just the past three years. I just do a lot of stuff, whether I’m under contract or not. I just do a lot of events, so I have no idea, but it’s been a ton.”
(Has the message evolved over the years?)
“It has. It has. It’s evolved from not just a story but the things I’ve learned and what prepared me to get through one of the toughest moments of my life. One of the guys from ESPN, when they did the special that aired, he said, ‘It’s not so much about the story why we came to you. We see stories a lot.’ He said, ‘A lot of the people can’t understand your perspective, why you consider something that so many people would consider a tragedy and bad and terrible - you don’t look at it that way.’
"My story has evolved from moments like that: talking about my perspective and how it’s helped me, talking about the things I’ve learned and how I feel my experiences and the how the things I’ve been through in the past helped me through one of the toughest moments of my life."
(Would you say that your delivery is unique? Where does that voice come from?)
“Oh man (laughing), I don’t know where the heck that comes from. I’ve got to be honest. I have no idea where that comes from. I’ve always been a passionate individual, always been a reserved individual. But, you know, when moments happen, I get passionate. Even when I played ball, if you asked some of the guys I played with, I was never that up-front, rah-rah guy - but I had moments. When moments happened that I felt were important - like if I felt the guys were slacking during a workout ...
“When I played at UT, there was one workout where, man, it was after my injury. I was working out. I had a sling. I was beating a lot of the guys in the drills. My career was over at this point. I was still working out with my teammates, (wearing) a customized sling. I’d wrap it around my torso and my arm to keep it in place. I was beating a lot of the guys in drills. Like, I was beating them. They were slacking. They were really slacking.
"I looked at Coach (Phillip Fulmer) and said, ‘Hey, Coach, can I call it up?’ Coach Fulmer said, ‘Sure, call it up.’ I called the team up. It was me, him, the coaching staff, the strength coaches, and I just got after them, man. I cried. It hurt me to my heart that guys were taking it for granted. I have moments like that. I’m not just an up-front, rah-rah guy, but moments I feel are important, I’m passionate about them.”
(Where do you think or hope that this speaking career goes from here?)
“You know, I have been approached with a lot of opportunities to work with a lot of teams in the player development space - from NFL to college. I just feel like it’s not the season right now. It’s not that I’m not honored that they’d consider me in that capacity, but I look at my life in this way now: I had planned to play football in the NFL since I was 7. I got close. I had an injury when I was a couple of games away from, you know, possibly making it. It changed my life. I had been planning for that ever since I was 7 years old.
“So now, the way I approach things, I feel as if I missed out on a lot - when I was chasing that. It was the only thing I wanted to do. So when the injury happened, I felt convicted. I thought, ‘Man, this is the only thing that you’ve been going after. Life happened and you didn’t get it.’ Now I try to be in the moment, whether it’s with my family or whether I’m speaking to a team, doing an interview. I try to appreciate the beauty and the richness of a moment, in a season or wherever I am in my life. I don’t look too far ahead. I don’t look too far behind. I just appreciate the journey, wherever it takes me. I just try to appreciate it and trust that I’m being guided by something greater than myself.”