By Meredith McGroarty
There are few people in the world whose lives have literally changed in an instant. Inky Johnson is one of them. Almost from the moment he arrived at UT, Inky Johnson was one of the Vols’ top players, spotlighted on TV ads and widely considered a shoo-in for a future position in the NFL. But a major mid-game collision in 2006 left his future—and his life—in question.
Johnson’s childhood, football days, and remarkable recovery after his accident are the focus of a new book, Inky: An Amazing Story of Faith and Perseverance, co-authored by Johnson and Knoxville attorney Jeff Hagood.
Hagood, a lifelong Vols fan and the current president of the Knoxville Quarterback Club, had already co-authored (with former coach Phillip Fulmer) the book A Perfect Season, which chronicled the Vols’ 1998 football season and national championship victory.
“I felt Inky had a story that was certainly worth telling,” Hagood says. “I wanted to tell the story in the way he would tell it. I hope I captured that.”
A good deal of Johnson’s book is not about his accident at all, but about his childhood in Atlanta. Born in 1986 to a single mother, Johnson grew up in Kirkwood, a neighborhood that he says was overwhelmingly poor and full of drugs and violence.
Johnson became increasingly involved with sports, and when Fulmer visited his high school and offered him a scholarship, Johnson signed on to play for the Vols.
But during a game on September 9, 2006, Johnson collided with an Air Force player so hard that Johnson blacked out immediately. He had suffered severe nerve damage in his collarbone area and had to undergo extensive surgery just to stay alive. His right arm was completely paralyzed, and the doctors told him his football career was over.
After the accident, Johnson returned to UT and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2007 and a master’s degree in sports psychology in 2009.
He also returned to the Vols as a leader and mentor, serving first as a student assistant coach and then as a graduate assistant coach. He gave on-field coaching and mentored players, including Eric Berry, who took “29” as his jersey number for the Kansas City Chiefs in honor of Johnson, who wore that number for the Vols.
“Right after the accident, I couldn’t watch the game because it hurt that I couldn’t play,” Johnson says. “But I realized I could feel good by coaching and watching other guys play the game. And every time I turn on TV and watch Eric as 29, I get that same feeling—like I’m playing.”
Today, Johnson is the sports and health coordinator for JustLead, part of a youth ministry program. He coaches children in various sports and teaches them about faith and leadership. He also is married now and has two children.
Johnson says that his injury ended up being very beneficial, in that it strengthened his religious devotion, which he feels is the most important part of his life.
“Once you go through an injury, your faith matures a lot,” he says. “If I could go back and play football today, I wouldn’t. I’m thankful for the impact this has had on me and the people around me.”
Learn more about the book at www.inkyjohnson.com.