By ZACH BIRDSONG
The Tullahoma High School football team got a treat, when players, coaches and parents got to hear former University of Tennessee Volunteer Inky Johnson speak on Monday night.
The potluck-style dinner, sponsored by the Tullahoma Quarterback Club, took place following practice and was held inside the high school’s cafeteria.
On Sept. 9, 2006, Johnson’s life changed forever during a regular-season contest against Air Force Academy. What seemed like a routine tackle, turned into a life-threatening injury. Today, Johnson’s right arm is paralyzed and he experiences constant pain.
Since he was 7 years old, Johnson had the goal of making it into the NFL. While his football career is over, Johnson continues to stay positive. Although his injury forced him to stop playing, Johnson did not give up on his education, earning a master’s degree in sports psychology from the University of Tennessee.
Today, Johnson is a motivational speaker and devotes much of his time to mentoring athletes and underprivileged youths. On Monday night, Johnson spoke from the heart and directed his message to the Wildcat football team.
To immediately engage his audience, Johnson asked five random players to stand and join him at the front of the cafeteria. Holding a football, Johnson handed each player the ball and asked for the first word that came to mind when he received it.
“I do that for a lot of reasons,” Johnson told the crowd. “First and foremost, I love the responses that I get from the guys. But, most importantly, I still remember the first thought that popped into my head when I touched the football when I was 7 years old coming up in inner-city Atlanta, in a neighborhood known as Kirkwood.”
Growing up poor in a rough neighborhood, Johnson said football was his way out.
“One day, I heard a voice call my name, he said, ‘Hey Ink’ and I turned around and it was my uncle J.J., who tossed me the football,” Johnson said. “I caught it and looked my cousin dead in the eye and said, ‘Oh yeah, this is it.’ He said, ‘Ink what are you are talking about?’ I said, ‘This is our family’s way out of poverty.’ This is my mother’s way of never having to move another day in her life. I am going to put everything I got into this game called football. I said whatever it takes to get to the NFL, I’m going to do it.”
From that point on, Johnson devoted all of his time and effort to getting better in every aspect of the game. On Saturdays, he would get up and start running at 4:30 a.m. with his father to start training.
“I loved the process,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t one of these kids that had a million dollar dream with a minimum wage work ethic. I wasn’t one of these cats that expectations exceeded their efforts.”
Johnson’s hard work paid off and he was rewarded with a spot as a defensive back on the Volunteers’ football squad. During the second weekend of September his junior season, his career came to a screeching halt.
With just a few minutes left in the game at Neyland Stadium, Johnson tackled an Air Force player, leading with his shoulder. The play caused nerve damage in Johnson’s right shoulder and left him unable to get up after the play.
“As soon as I hit him, every breath in my body left and I fell to the ground and blacked out,” he said. “That had never happened to me before. My eyes opened to my teammates rushing over to me saying, ‘Inky let’s go, let’s get back to the huddle.’ I said ‘I can’t.’ They said ‘What do you mean you can’t? Man you always get up.’ I said ‘I can’t. My nerves are shot, I can’t feel anything.’”
Johnson made his way off the field, and was brought to the hospital after the game, where doctors soon informed him that he would never be able to play football again. After receiving the diagnosis, Johnson focused his energy into making those around him better, and continued to participate with the team as much as his body would allow.
According to Johnson, former UT safety and current Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry wears the No. 29 in honor of Johnson.
“He saw that my right arm was paralyzed and I would get out there and outwork everybody on my team,” he said. “I would outrun them in sprints, I would out-group them in the sandpit when I had a paralyzed arm two weeks after my surgery. He [Berry] saw that. I wasn’t talking about it, I was living it.”
Although he’s no longer playing, football continues to be a major part of Johnson’s life and he encouraged the THS players to give all their effort and take what they learn on the field and use those lessons to become better people.
“Who you are as a person is way more important than [who you are as] a football player,” he said. “I’m bringing you this message not for the game of football, I love the game of football. I want you guys to be great role models. I want you to great husbands. I want you guys to be great men. I want you to be able to go out in your community and contribute and lead in such a way that people look at you and are willing to follow.”