When he took the field for the UT Vols on Sept. 9, 2006, Inky Johnson didn’t know it would be the last football game of his career.
A routine tackle turned into a near-death experience that has left the 29-year-old Johnson paralyzed in his right arm to the point where he can’t even shake hands.
But Johnson hasn’t let the life-changing event ground his uplifting attitude. Perpetually upbeat, Johnson was the keynote speaker Thursday night as First National Bank held its 31st annual academic banquet to recognize the top 10 percent of the Warren County High School Class of 2015.
“The road to success is under constant construction,” Johnson told the group of seniors and their parents. “I didn’t go out there thinking that would be my last game, that my life would be changed forever. I’m thinking I’m eight games away from the NFL. I was projected to be a top 30 pick. Then all of a sudden I make a hit and it was unlike any hit I have ever made. My body went completely limp. The next thing I know I’m hearing an ER doctor say we’ve got to get this guy back to surgery. He’s about to lose his life.”
Johnson had ruptured a main artery to his heart and was suffering internal bleeding. He also did irreparable nerve damage to his right arm, his dominant arm. He made it through surgery but soon learned from doctors he would never play football again. Even more devastating was the news he may never use his right arm again.
“I was sitting in a cubicle trying to sign up for disability benefits when I just lost it,” said Johnson. “I was writing left-handed and my writing was all over the place because I’d never written left-handed before and I just broke down. I said, ‘God, what’s up? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why did this happen to me?’ You can take experiences in life and you can look at them in two ways. You can look at them in a positive way or look at them in a negative way. And the way I look at it, I was faced with opportunities to give up. I was faced with opportunities to give excuses. But I’ve never given up. I’ve given this thing called life everything I have.”
Johnson’s journey to major college football was no easy road. He grew up in a brutal Atlanta neighborhood in a two-bedroom home with 14 people. There were drug deals on the streets and he said more people dropped out of high school than graduated.
Johnson said going to college on a scholarship was not something that happened at his high school. He said he once told one of his school officials he wanted to go D-1, meaning he wanted to play for a Division 1 college football team. He said the response was, “You’ll most likely be in cell block D-1.”
Johnson said he knew as a 7-year-old kid that football was his way out of poverty. He said after his regular football practice, he would get his mother to shine her car headlights on the field so he could get some more practice in the dark.
“You are not a product of your environment. You are a product of your decisions and your choices,” said Johnson, who said his mother gave birth to him at 15 and his father’s name is still not on his birth certificate. “Don’t let your circumstances define your life. I came from circumstances that said this kid shouldn’t make it.”
Johnson thanked coach Phil Fulmer for taking a chance on him and signing him to a college scholarship. He said on his official visit to UT he turned down the opportunity to attend several parties for a chance to go back to his hotel room.
“Living in a house with 14 people, I’d never had a chance to be in a room by myself with my own bed,” said Johnson.
He said he developed a close relationship with UT safety Eric Berry, who was drafted with the No. 5 overall pick in the NFL draft. He said Berry called him on draft day after being selected by the Kansas City Chiefs.
“He told me he was going to wear No. 29 in honor of me,” said Johnson. “I told him not to do that, to be his own man. He told me that he was where he was today because I was the one out there holding him accountable, I was the one out there pushing him to give his best every day.”
Johnson said he likes to carry around a bucket that contains a football signed by Berry. Johnson said it gives him daily motivation.
“This bucket is a constant reminder that I always have to empty the bucket,” said Johnson. “What that means is I have to give it everything I’ve got in every aspect of my life every day. I have to empty the bucket.”