Inky Johnson had plenty of opportunities to give up in his life: as a youngster growing up in inner city Atlanta, as a teenager trying to earn better grades while working to get a scholarship to play Division I college football and after a hit in the University of Tennessee - Air Force Academy game that left his right arm paralyzed and dashed dreams of an NFL career.
But Johnson didn’t let those obstacles stop him. And now he has a message of perseverance that he brought to the students at Eagleton Middle School.
Seventh and eighth grade students at Eagleton Middle School gathered in the library on Sept. 30 to hear the former starting UT cornerback tell his story.
Assistant principal Jon Young described Johnson as a person who has dedicated himself to encouraging students to make positive choices. He showed the students a copy of Johnson’s new autobiography: “Inky Johnson: An Amazing Story of Faith and Perseverance.”
“He is an advocate for doing the right thing, and he is here today to tell us his story,” Young said.
Johnson said he grew up Atlanta, in a two bedroom house with 14 people and one bathroom. “I grew up in a community with a lot of violence and drugs,” he said.
Johnson said he had plenty of opportunities to make the wrong life choices. “I easily could have chosen to sell drugs or chosen not to go to school,” he said. “At my high school, the drop out rate was higher than the graduation rate.”
Johnson said that at a young age, he realized he was faced with a choice. He could choose to do the right thing or the wrong thing. “Why do you think people choose to do the right thing or the wrong thing? Why do you think people choose to go the wrong way?” he asked as several students answered. “It is easy, sometimes it can be fun.”
Johnson asked the students what some of the reasons people choose to do the right thing were. “Getting a better education, getting a job, having a good family,” he said. “There is more of an upside to doing the right thing than there is to doing the wrong thing.”
Johnson said often young people do not realize that the consequences of their decisions to do the wrong thing will stay with them a long time. “I’m lucky. A lot of my friends chose the wrong things, and they are still suffering,” he said. “When you are your age, you don’t realize it.”
The former cornerback told the students they need to realize education is vital to their future. “Education is the great equalizer,” he said.
Johnson said students also need to learn to put others before themselves. “I’m a firm believer that life is about helping others,” he said.
The former UT standout said that when he was a youngster in school in Atlanta, he excelled at track, basketball, baseball and football. At one point, Johnson said his parents decided to move him from Alonzo A. Crim High School to Tucker High School in a better part of town because they hoped he would have a greater chance of landing a scholarship to play at a Division I college. “It was a great school, but I wanted to be a knucklehead and was not doing the work,” he said.
Johnson said he didn’t want to go to the school, but wanted instead to attend where he lived. But all people said about his old school was that nothing good ever came out of it, Johnson said.
“You became a product of your environment,” he said, “But my reason for not going to Tucker was I had something to prove at Crim.”
Johnson said his parents finally gave in and sent him back to his school in his community. The athlete’s plan didn’t work exactly as he wanted it to because of injuries on the football field at the start of his junior year. “The first football game at Crim, I got hurt. I had no football film (for recruiters) because I got hurt the first game of my sophomore year,” he said. “But I had something I had to prove to the community and the school. I had something I wanted to do.”
Johnson said that while he had put himself into tough circumstances, he was not going to let that determine his future. “It is easy to let people make excuses,” he said. “Face every situation. I was going to make something of myself. It would have been easy to give up. I had every excuse to give up.”
Johnson encouraged the students to not take anything for granted. “Just by being born you are afforded opportunities to dream,” he said.
Johnson explained how he dealt with difficult consequences his senior year because of choices earlier in his high school academic career. He spent many hours studying and preparing for tests and for class to raise his grades.
“My senior year rolled around, and I realized, ‘This is my last shot.’ But I had a vision. When you have a vision and something you want to do in life, there will be missions inside that vision that you go on, and sometimes you have to do it on your own,” he said. “My senior year, I didn’t have a life. I had tutoring, preparing for SAT exams. I missed out on the fun, but I was not giving up,” he said.
Johnson’s efforts paid off when he earned passing grades, earned a good SAT score and passed his graduation tests and won a scholarship to the University of Tennessee. While he was the first in his family to go to college, he was not the last.
Four of his cousins behind him also were inspired and encouraged by Johnson to graduate high school and then go on to earn a college degree. “My four cousins behind me would not have had the same opportunity if I had gone to Tucker,” he said.
Johnson encouraged the students to believe in themselves enough to make the right decisions. “Everyone here says they believe in themselves. I’ve still got dreams and the rest of my life, I’m going to be chasing after them,” he said.
The former starting cornerback told the students they can be a good example by making positive choices. “Always be a leader and do the right thing. Anybody can give in to peer pressure,” he said.
Johnson shared how, in the last two minutes of the UT-Air Force Academy game in 2006, he was tackling someone and was hit between the shoulder and the neck and was severely injured. Nerves were torn, and his right arm was paralyzed. The former athlete, who was in his third year at UT, said he learned to write left-handed, how to dress himself and a myriad of other everyday tasks left-handed.
“I’ve been left with paralysis for five years,” he said.
The former college athlete said that there are moments when he struggles with giving up or going on. “Always go on. Always have faith,” he said. “Anybody can give up, that’s the easy route.”
Johnson told the students they would face adversity in their lives. “Do things that not everybody can do. Keep positive,” he said. “You wake up with a choice to change situations in a positive way.”
Johnson, who earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in sports psychology at UT, now lives in Atlanta with his wife, Allison, and their daughter, Jada Chade. He recently completed his autobiography and is promoting the book now. The former athlete said that each day he tries to grow as a man and tries to show integrity, compassion and understanding. “My goal is to write another book,” he said. “I’m constantly trying to grow.”
Principal Becky Stone and Young presented Johnson with an Eagleton Middle School football shirt and thanked him for taking to time to speak to the students.
Stone said so many students grow up in difficult situations at home. “Some don’t have models who tell them they can persevere and can be the first to go to college,” she said. “Dreams can come true.”
Stone said when students hear that message from someone like Johnson to whom they can relate rather than just from their parents and the teachers, it makes an impact. “It makes them think deeper so they will push themselves harder,” she said. “It gives them motivation.”