Inky Johnson was a standout defensive cornerback at the University of Tennessee who was running headlong into a stellar National Football League career.
Just eight games with the Volunteers away from a likely high selection in the NFL draft after the 2006 season, Johnson was running headstrong into Justin Handley of the Air Force Academy to make a tackle during a game.
In a single moment, Johnson’s journey to the pros ended and God had repurposed his life to a greater purpose.
The tackle on Handley had paralyzed Johnson’s right arm. He sustained severe nerve, ligament, and arterial damage and the collision nearly ended his life.
The injury did not stop Johnson’s drive to succeed, however. The incident only redirected how Johnson views success in his life and in how he can lead others to a better life in Christ.
“I want one thing from you,” Johnson told the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) fundraiser breakfast on Thursday, Feb. 27 at Southaven’s Landers Center. “I’m not one of those who travel around and tell people how to do what they do because I wouldn’t disrespect you in that way. But I know this to be true about life. I do believe in life people don’t burn out because of what they do. I believe people burn out because life makes us forget why they do it; the real mission, real purpose, and the real impact.”
Today, Johnson shares his faith as a motivational speaker to inspire others and change lives. His biography states that Johnson “feels that someone in the audience needs his testimony to fulfill God’s plan.” He calls that fateful time when his football career ended a “destiny moment.”
“I believe God gives us destiny moments,” Johnson said. “As long as you can live your life and make sure that somebody else’s life is OK, your life will always be OK.”
Johnson said he views the injury as an opportunity given by God to work for the better good.
“At that moment, the game of football became a platform like I view this stage,” Johnson said. “It was a platform that God had provided me to cultivate a certain level of excellence and greatness, so one day when football ended, there would be certain things that I could extract from it to apply to other areas of my life to make somewhat of a decent human being.”
Johnson was a Christian before the tackle injury and he said his mother was a believer, as well. However, his father was not a Chrisitan and was dealing with his unbelief in the aftermath of Johnson’s injury.
Johnson’s father spent the next month after the injury with his son and watched how Inky dealt with the injury, continuing to go to church, FCA events, and Bible studies. A change happened while Johnson’s father watched his son lean on his Christian faith.
“On the 29th day, I got on my knees to pray and my father comes and says, ‘Are things good?’ and I said ‘Yes sir, I’m good,’” Johnson said. “He stepped back into my room and said, ‘I want to talk to you about something. Do you know that God that you pray to, the God I take you to FCA discipleship about? If that God can help you handle this situation the way you’re handling it, son, I want to give my life to Christ.’ My father got saved that day.”
Johnson added that roommates and teammates also accepted Christ in his time on the UT campus and those decisions mean more to him than the NFL.
“If I had a scale and I could put my father’s salvation, my roommates’ salvation, and my teammates’ salvation on one side, and on the other side the NFL, 10 out of 10 times I’m going to pick my father’s salvation, my roommates’ salvation, and my teammates’ salvation,” said Johnson.
Johnson finished Thursday’s remarks with a challenge to his audience.
“James Chapter 1 states, ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything,’ Johnson quoted.
Thursday’s program also included a testimony from Lauren Gross, a former basketball player at Northpoint Christian School who is now a member of the Southern Miss women’s basketball team. Gross talked about how FCA has helped her in the transition from high school to college life away from home. Gross is sitting out this basketball season after transferring from the University of North Florida. She will be a redshirt sophomore at Southern Miss next year.
Her father, Michael Gross, followed his daughter’s remarks to speak about how he views FCA as a parent of a Christian athlete.
Winners of this year’s Coach Bob Patterson Scholarship Awards by the FCA are Wesley Sides of DeSoto Central High School and Lauren Harlow of Horn Lake. Their $1,000 scholarships are given in the name of the late Memphis State University athletic director and coach Bob Patterson, who was active in DeSoto County late in his life. Patterson, a native of New Jersey, died in 2017. His football playing and coaching careers are recognized as a member of Sports Halls of Fame in both New Jersey and in Tennessee.
Bob Bakken is Managing Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune.