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October 26, 2017 | Tom Ballard

Inky Johnson captivates and inspires lunch crowd at “Governor’s Conference”

ECD Conference 2017By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

I consider myself a reasonably good writer, but I also know that those skills are inadequate when they come to capturing the spirit of the motivational speech that a former Tennessee Volunteer football player gave at yesterday’s “Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development.”

Let me set the stage.

The player was Inky Johnson, and the date was September 9, 2006. The venue was Neyland Stadium with the Vols playing the Air Force Academy. What should have been a routine tackle turned into an almost death sentence for Johnson who recalled his brief time in the emergency room at the University of Tennessee (UT) Medical Center and a doctor who uttered some very sobering words.

“Guys, rush in here,” Johnson recalls him saying. “We’ve got to get him into emergency surgery, he’s dying.” The football star’s response was, “Can you use another word?”

As Johnson held a luncheon audience spellbound, he related a lifetime of growing-up in the Kirkwood section of Atlanta, an area rife with poverty and violence. Thanks to the kindness and support of a person who paid for his first real football coaching, Johnson saw a future out of poverty and crime even as others did not.

He explained how his mother did not want him to attend the high school that was five minutes from home. Was there any reason he should? After all, the dropout rate was higher than the graduation rate, and there was a police officer at every entrance and metal detectors behind every door. Yet Johnson, even as a teenager, already had a higher calling.

On the first day of high school, he said the policeman at the door asked him what he was going to do with his life. Johnson replied, “Graduate and play college football.” The policeman asked him why he thought that was possible when he had two uncles in a nearby prison serving 13- and 14-year sentences respectively.

Undeterred. Johnson proved he could do it, returning to the school and finding the same policeman to show him the scholarship papers he had just signed with UT. Fulfilling the goal he set for himself when he entered high school also fulfilled that initial higher calling, namely to show other students that you can make it successfully at that inner city high school if you persevere.

That goal was supplanted by a much larger and all-encompassing one when Johnson awakened after that emergency surgery with his right arm and hand paralyzed, a condition that has not improved.

“It caused me to think about my legacy,” Johnson explained. “It was like someone pulled the shades-up on my life. The only thing I want to do is to make an impact and make a difference.”

Telling stories about experiences before and after the injury ended his desire to play professional football, the charismatic Johnson shared a number of other stories from his life as he continually challenged the 700 attendees with different words to make their own impact on others through their actions today and tomorrow.

The quotes that I think best capture the message that he delivered to a very long standing ovation were these:

  • “As long as you live your life so someone else’s life is better, your life will also be better.”
  • “When it’s all said and done, it (life) is about two things: who we became and what we did.”

Click here to access Johnson’s webpage with his motivation videos and other materials.

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