One of the biggest elements of getting a college education is "finding yourself". Many go to college unsure of what they want to be or who they are. For a two-star, unknown defensive back from Atlanta, it is knowing who he is that has allowed him to handle the abrupt ending to his college career.
Everyone remembers the hit. Everyone remembers the scene. For the last nine months, Vol fans everywhere have prayed and asked about the health of Inky Johnson. After two surgeries, Johnson still faces a long road of rehab. His arm remains in a brace. The nerve graph he had in December is healing and his movements are slight. Johnson understands where he is and how far he has to go, but he remains unwaivering in his attitude about getting better.
"I got a little movement back," Johnson said. "My nerve graph is growing really good. I am going to rehab and getting it stronger. I am happy with my progress and my trainers are happy with it. A typical day is class, a workout and rehab. I still workout every day. The rehab is movement and strengthening exercise. I think I am going to be able in time to use it a good bit. I can notice a big difference in it."
My original goal in doing a story on Inqouris "Inky" Johnson was to give fans a glimpse of how someone can go from being on the verge of stardom on the football field to having to handle a critical shoulder injury that ended his promising football career.
What I have found in my "research" is that Inky can handle it because well ... he is Inky.
He says what he means, and he means what he says. - Trooper Taylor
It certainly sounds like "coach speak", but that phrase is the essence of Inky Johnson and has been all of his life. Most in the recruiting world knew little about Johnson. He played at tiny Crim High School in Atlanta and the Tennessee recruiting office found him. The Vols got a huge assist from then Crim head coach Darren Myles. Myles was an assistant coach at Douglas High School when Tennessee recruited Jamal Lewis. Myles knows talent. But it wasn't just his athletic ability that got Myles' attention.
"He is the epitome of what you want a student-athlete to be," Myles said. "He comes from a great family. I always tell my kids that character is what you do when no one is looking. He always responded 'No sir' or 'Yes sir'. He is one of the most respected athletes I have ever coached."
But it wasn't a given that Johnson was going to college. On the field, he missed most of his junior year with a broken collarbone and when Myles took over the head coaching position heading into Johnson's senior year, he found a transcript in need of work.
"Inky needed to make all 'A's' in his core classes in order to qualify," Myles recalled. "I told him he needed to be qualified by December if he wanted to be recruited. I sat down with Inky and his dad and went over the plan. And by December, he was qualified because that was Inky."
Johnson jumped on the chance to take an official visit to Tennessee. He arrived in Knoxville making a simple sales pitch.
"I told them they would not be making a mistake if they took me," Johnson said. "I told them they would not regret it."
That might sound cocky from a 5-foot-9, 165 pound defensive back, but for Johnson it was just being confident.
"I know myself and my whole life I have been doubted. I like to prove people wrong," Johnson said. "When people tell me I can't do something I take that as a challenge in life. When people were telling me that I was too small and could not compete in the SEC. I took that as a challenge. I didn't get mad at everyone who was saying that because everyone has their opinion, but I took it as motivation to prove people wrong."
Johnson said he gained the attention of everyone that he could back up his word in his first scrimmage.
"I know people looked at me as who is this little dude," Johnson smiled. "He can't play here because he is to little. I didn't come from a big program. I didn't have a lot of stars or all the hype. But the way I went about my work they probably started second guessing that a little bit. In the first scrimmage, I hit CJ Fayton on an out route and 'Chief' (John Chavis) came up to me and said he was proud of me and he liked it. I think I shocked people a little bit when the little guy rolled up and hit someone like that."
"We knew he was a good athlete, but we didn't realize until he got here and starting practicing just how tough he was," head coach Phillip Fulmer said.
Heading into the second game of last season, Inky was the kind of Cinderella story that fans love.
A body changed, but a soul untouched
On September 10th, Johnson awoke at the University of Tennessee Medical Center after a routine hit in the fourth quarter against Air Force had severed the nerves in his right shoulder. Immediate surgery was needed to save his arm. The injury was a shock to everyone, and the reaction from the football program was total disbelief. Coaches cried as the looked for strength to deal with the magnitude of the injury and how to face Johnson.
They found the strength they needed from Johnson himself and that is when the Tennessee football family started to truly understand who Inky Johnson was. As Phillip Fulmer paid his first visit to see Johnson, Inky greeted his coaches with a smile and a declaration that he was going to be fine and he was blessed.
"It made me grateful for him, my profession and my family," Fulmer recalled of the visit. "It just warmed your heart. I had great anxiety about what to say when I saw him there and after he told us he was blessed it took away some of the sense of sadness because you know he was going to be ok."
Last season was Jason McVeigh's first year as the head trainer at Tennessee. McVeigh was with Johnson and his family countless days after the injury. Johnson's words to Phillip Fulmer rang loudly to McVeigh because he had seen Johnson's actions, and they were exactly what he told the head coach.
"Being around him and his family the first few days, when I heard that statement about what he said to Coach (Fulmer), it impacted me because anyone can say that or make a phrase like that. When I heard that he said that, it completely drove home what I had seen the previous days. He had not summed it up to me that way, but when I read it, I said that is right on to the attitude he has. I had seen it and when I saw it in words, it was impressive because he had that attitude when he wasn't saying it."
Johnson admits that he saw his Vol family hurting and wanted to ease their pain. But is also helped him.
"I did it for them and for myself," Johnson admitted. "I just told them that I am blessed and that everything happens for a reason. God never takes you through anything that he can't bring you through. I told coach that I was blessed and that he didn't have to worry about anything because I was going to be alright. I think it helped them with everything and it helped me out a lot."
Defensive coordinator John Chavis still gets emotional talking about the days after Johnson's injury. Chavis admits that he did not sleep for a couple of nights after the injury and that it was Johnson's words that helped him through the emotions of dealing with his fallen player.
"He gave us all some peace of mind," Chavis said. "There is no question about that. It didn't make things ok, but it certainly made things better because you knew he was in a position mentally to handle anything throw his way. We talk about this game teaching us lessons in life. We don't know what hand is going to be dealt to us. What we have to do as men is be ready to take than hand and play it to the best of our abilities and I think that is what Inky is demonstrating. He has been dealt a tough hand, but he is going to play it to it's fullest. And there is no doubt in my mind that there are blessings in store for him down the road because of his faith."
Johnson's faith is something he is not shy about. He grew up in church and admits there is no way to explain how significant his faith has been to his recovery.
"I don't think words can describe what my faith means to me," Johnson said. "It is always there with me. I keep this cloth in my pocket that some fans sent me. It was from a preacher in Marietta, Georgia and it talks about faith and staying strong. I keep in my back pocket all the time."
Because of that faith, Johnson said he has never been bitter about his situation and rarely has he been scared of his injury. According to Johnson, the only time he got nervous about things was when he went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. A moment in this world-renowned medical facility hit him square in the face.
"I got nervous about it at first when the doctors were telling me about all the possibilities and all the chances of what could happen. The doctors were very real with me. I got kind of nervous at one time. I wear these faith braces. I looked at them and said I call myself a man of faith and I am nervous? What am I doing? I told myself I had to be strong in my faith. They told me that I would be there a week or two and I ended up being there just a couple of days."
He got out in time to join his teammates at the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida.
A promise made is a promise kept
When Johnson was released from the University of Tennessee Medical Center in September, he had the option of going home for the semester or remaining in school. Johnson said he never contemplated returning home to Atlanta.
"I didn't want to go home," Johnson said. "I felt like if I would have gone home, I would have gotten down on myself because I would not have been doing anything. Had I gone home, I probably would not have wanted to come back to school, because I would have been just hanging out with people. My drive might have left me had I went home. I promised my parents and my grandmother that I was going to graduate from college. I will be the first person on my mom's side of the family to graduate from college."
Johnson will graduate in December (a semester early) with a degree in Political Science.
Today, Johnson remains committed to getting better, his team and doing things his way. His normal day consists of an hour or better of rehab, a workout in the weight room and the pursuit of his degree.
His right arm remains in a brace and his improvement is gradual.
And with his improvement being slow and gradual, the inability to do things with his right arm has obviously created challenges.
One of the biggest has been writing. Johnson is right-handed. The University would have provided him with note takers and tutors to type his work, but Johnson declined the help and taught himself how write left- handed.
"I have gotten pretty good at it," Johnson said with a smile. "I can't write as fast right now left-handed, but it is not bad. They had note takers for me, but I am a person who likes a challenge, so I decided to learn how to write left- handed. I am trying to learn to tie my shoes left handed. I am a competitive type of person. It was real hard to learn, but it is fun. It is a new experience for me and it is fun."
To overcome not being able to tie his shoes Johnson doesn't untie them or he gets help from his roommate and close friend Jarod Mayo
"He is a real independent person," Mayo said. "It was hard on him at first adjusting to everything. I didn't have to do a lot of things for him. I help him tie his shoes. I help him tie his do-rag up before he goes to sleep at night. He is like a brother to me. We both had similar goals in life and football. Knowing who he is and where he came from, he is going to be successful in anything he does."
Johnson said his daily trip to the weight room gives him the chance to remain involved with his teammates, which might be the most important element to the success of his rehab.
"Those guys have been real important to me," Johnson said. "They still treat me the same. If I need something they won't hesitate doing it for me, and if they need something I don't hesitate to help them. All of us are like brothers. They have been huge for me. Words can't express that and I appreciate those guys."
Johnson also credits his girlfriend, softball standout India Chiles, for being his rock the last nine months.
And while being treated as one of the guys is important to Johnson, still being one of the guys provides plenty of motivation for his teammates. If the team voted on captains today, Mayo said his roommate would top the list.
"He would win in a landslide because he has the respect of everyone in the program, from players to coaches," Mayo said. "Everyone respects him for what he has done for this program. He just takes everything in stride. He is an inspiration to the whole team, especially the defense."
It is more than just the players who Johnson is inspiring. It's coaches. It's administrators. It's trainers. It's anyone who is around him. As I sat and visited with him in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex, everyone said "Hello". I mean everyone. From basketball coaches to workers in the complex, anyone who walked by greeted Johnson with a smile and a greeting as if they had known him all of his life.
"I think you take a little bit out of every guy you get to know during a rehab," McVeigh said. "You look at him and he is 21 years old and you would not think that he has it as figured out as he does. He is a kid who is a role model even to me. It is the kind of person we should all strive to be. He is out there doing things that are inspirational, but he is not out there beating his chest or standing on a soap box doing it. He is just being himself so being around him is fun. It is inspirational. It has an impact on you."
For John Chavis, Johnson's mere presence around the program provides him with motivation.
"He inspires me everyday," Chavis said. "He inspires me with his courage and the way he handles things. When you have an injury of that magnitude I would think it would be easy to sit around and feel sorry for yourself. He hasn't. He could have said hey 'I can't finish school' and could have gone home. Instead he was back in class doing the things he did everyday. I am just in awe of his courage. I have grown from him and this situation. It has put a different perspective on life for me."
Since the injury, Johnson has been completely involved in everything with the program. When there is a team function, Johnson is there whether it is a community outing or a workout, Johnson has not missed a moment with his team.
This fall, Johnson will be in defensive back meetings. According to Phillip Fulmer, Johnson will be as involved with his program as NCAA rules will allow. He will be listed as a student coach on a medical hardship. He will be on the practice field and will be around the team just as he is today. In fact, Johnson can be seen getting into anyone's "grill" during workouts or "Seven on Seven" work.
"I talk as much junk to them now as I did before," Johnson said. "I get right in a guy's dish. I don't have to say anything about my injury. I just look at them and say what are you complaining about. They will look at me and say man you are right and they go back to doing what they need to be doing."
Johnson sees himself coaching someday. He also sees himself owning a business, maybe writing a book and continuing to offer his inspirational story to anyone who ask. He acknowledges that he will likely start his coaching career as a graduate assistant something that the coaching staff at Tennessee has promised him.
"I have made the commitment to Inky that if he wants to coach that as long as I am in coaching I am going to be there to help him," Chavis said. "If he wants to be a graduate assistant then he will be one at the University of Tennessee. Coach Fulmer and I have already talked about it."
Regardless of what Johnson elects to do, those who know him best know he will be extremely successful.
"I think where ever he decides he wants to be, he will be farther than he thinks he will be," McVeigh said. "If he decides he wants to be in politics and his goal is to be mayor then he will probably be governor. If he wants to be a coach and he thinks an assistant high school coach would be good in five years then he will be a college assistant. He will be surprised that he will exceed his own expectations because other people around him will want him to be a part of what they are doing. I don't know where he wants to be, but wherever he is at, I bet it is further along than he thinks he will be."
Philippians 4:13 says, "I can do all things through Christ, which strengtheneth me." It should come as no surprise that is Johnson's favorite verse and one he said he recites multiple times a day.
Physically, Inky Johnson faces a long, slow recovery. His progress will come in inches, not miles. His right shoulder is broken and may never be totally fixed.
But his mind and his soul are intact. Because of that, I left Inky Johnson knowing one thing: he's Inky ... and he's going to be just fine.