Inky Johnson The most motivational and inspirational Tennessee Vol ever take the field

Inky Johnson The most motivational and inspirational Tennessee Vol ever take the field

January 06, 2020



Inky Johnson grew up in poverty living in a two-bedroom home with thirteen other people in Atlanta. He slept on three pallets with his cousins. 

Throughout his childhood, Inky Johnson dreamed of making it to the NFL, so he could provide for his family and prevent his mom from having to work double shifts at Wendy's.

Inky never made it to the NFL. He came about as close as you can get until an injury during his junior year at Tennessee changed his life. He says he wouldn't
go back and change that moment even if he could.

Inky Johnson is now a very successful motivational speaker and author.

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 childhood NFL dreams.

'Plans to Prosper'

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 multiple interviews. "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."

Victorious Already

Johnson grew up living in his grandparents' two-bedroom house with 13 other family members. He slept on a pallet on the living room floor.

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.

A Legacy

Johnson will once again walk to midfield before the Vols play South Carolina.

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.



Your Pain is really showing
I have felt it in my heart
I have something good to tell you
although we're worlds apart
Please listen to this message
I know my words are true
Here they are so read them
they are especially for you

String comes from within you
Happiness is your right
you do NOT have to feel the pain
you do NOT have to fight
Just hold your head up and be strong
To yourself be true
inside there is another girl
the one you never knew
She's strong and really gorgeous
She's the one you need to see
Remember to look and find her
she will set your spirits free

Don't forget to greet her
and say a warm hello
let her out and free her
let your spirit grow
She waits there in your being
dormant for so long
believe in what you're seeing
and sing a freedom song

The guilt you carry with you
is holding you in chains
it's not your fault
forgive yourself
for the problem still remains
you need to find your children
you can't do it if you're low
so lift yourself from the hell you feel
You have to let it go

Positive thinking and a plan
will make your days feel better
come on girl you can do it
a fighter, a true go-getter
for in that fight is victory
something you have yet to learn
then you will have the happiness
for which you truly yearn


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."


Inky Johnson, who played safety at Tennessee and was going to be an NFL draft pick. After his  career ending injury, today, Inky Johnson is a motivational speaker, if you ever get the chance to read his book, or hear him speak live, we highly recommend it. The staff here at took a field trip to hear Inky speak at a church in Dalton, Georgia.











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