Inky hopes to play again

When Tennessee football players engage in voluntary summer workouts, a familiar face is among the group of defensive backs. Inky Johnson, wearing a shoulder brace, backpedals with Jonathan Hefney and Jarod Parrish. He runs sprints with Marsalous Johnson and Antonio Gaines.

When the group breaks the huddle, Johnson is right in the middle.

He's running. He's doing leg presses. He's working on his abs.

But there is one noticeable difference. When he lifts weights, it's with one arm.

But that's OK. The important thing is, he's among teammates.

``Oh man,'' Inquoris Johnson said, ``it's fun. It's just like nothing's changed.''

Of course, we know it's changed. Since that fateful September night, when Johnson's collision with an Air Force player knocked him out for the night and out of football for life, Johnson has battled to recover motion in his right arm.

He broke his collarbone and suffered nerve damage which threatened to have his arm removed. He has movement in his right arm, but not a lot.

``I feel good about the progress I've made,'' Johnson said.

Progress is slow. It's measured in inches, not miles.

Johnson has displayed remarkable patience and optimism for a man who almost lost his arm and his life.

``I love being out there with the guys and helping them any way I can,'' Johnson said in a rare recent interview. ``They motivate me and I motivate them.

``It makes me feel good and a part of the team. I appreciate those guys very much.''

And they appreciate him.

Former wide receiver Jayson Swain paid Johnson the ultimate compliment. Swain had Johnson's name tattooed on his arm.

``I just grabbed him and hugged him,'' Johnson said. ``That's a sign of respect and I've got a lot of respect for him. I love him like a brother and I appreciate him doing that. He said he did it for me as a sign of motivation and to honor me.''

Late last season, cornerback Jonathan Wade honored Johnson by wearing No. 29 in games. Johns'son sense of humor came forth.

``I told him if he was going to wear it, do it right,'' Johnson said. ``Don't get burned.''

Johnson said his teammates have been ultra supportive, whether it's giving him a ride, helping him tie his shoes or putting on his do rag.

Along the way, Johnson has earned their respect by displaying a positive attitude during difficult times. One player said if Johnson were still playing, he'd be a unanimous selection as team captain.

Trooper Taylor, UT's receivers coach, said when he and coach Phillip Fulmer visited Johnson in the hospital the night of the injury, he was overwhelmed.

``I was thinking we'd have to encourage him and he was encouraging us,'' Taylor said.

It's been that way for months. Johnson reaches out to help teammates, to do community service, to answer more than 2,000 letters of encouragement he's received.

``I don't know anyone who has anything negative to say about Inky,'' Taylor said. ``Everybody at his high school loves him.''

Against long odds, Johnson hasn't given up on a dream of playing football again.

``Yes sir,'' he said, when asked if he's optimistic he'll be in a UT uniform again. ``Don't nobody know what God's got in store for my future. The trainers don't know. I don't know really. I'm praying and have faith that it will happen.''

Tennessee begins practice Aug. 4. Where will Johnson be?

``I'll be out there standing right beside (secondary) coach (Larry) Slade, helping the defensive backs out any way I can,'' Johnson said.

Johnson is convinced UT is headed for a banner season.

``I think we're going to have a great season, an awesome season,'' he said. ``The guys are working hard. They're focused. They're prepared.''

Can UT replace No. 29 in the secondary?

``They'll be able to replace me,'' he said. ``I'm helping them do it right now.''

As the interview ended, Johnson interjected one other comment. ``Me and Trooper are pretty close and one day, I want to coach defensive backs for Trooper,'' Johnson said. ``I like his intensity and enthusiasm.''

That's a given, Taylor said.

``If that's one of his hopes and dreams, he can put it in his pocket because when I'm a head coach, I want to surround myself with good people and leaders, and leadership like what Inky has is something you're born with,'' Taylor said.

``If he's worried about that (a coaching job), that's one less worry he has.''

Johnson didn't really sound worried. He's put his fate in his faith.

Meanwhile, he's backpedaling and running and lifting weights and working on his abs.

That's what cornerbacks do.

And in Inky Johnson's mind, he's still a cornerback.

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