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Tank Johnson’s Path of Righteousness – Part I

By Vince Agnew, Player Engagement Insider

When potential is unlocked there is a realization of the purpose and greatness that lies inside. The key to that potential is hidden somewhere within the rollercoaster of achievements and failures that makes one embrace being alive. The lows are breathtaking, but they are a precursor for another rise.

Eight-year NFL defensive lineman Terry “Tank” Johnson (Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals) bears his battle wounds of life with pride. They serve as a stout visual of where he has been and where he is now going.

Johnson entered the NFL in 2004 as one of the most athletically gifted defensive lineman ever. At over 300 pounds, he ran an outrageous 4.6 second, forty-yard dash, leaped 34 inches high in the vertical jump and powered up 225 pounds thirty-one times in the bench press. But, athleticism does not make one exempt from agony.

In the first pass through Johnson’s path of righteousness, he embraces the lowest position on the totem pole and also enjoys the view from atop. Financial struggles placed major burdens on the family with a dozen children under one roof—and various circumstances would cause divide and remorse in the times that he wanted their support the most. The set of experiences would gradually awaken Johnson to the light that he could shine to help others.

Finding Inspiration Despite the Circumstances

The strain of multiple relocations can place a crippling tension on a household. However, consistency or constant change can both generate numerous opportunities for growth, depending on how they are handled. Johnson spent time in a list of different cities across the country, attending a different school each year until entering the seventh grade.

 “As a young kid I lived in a lot of places due to some economic hardships—going from parent to parent, grandma to aunt,” Johnson said. “I grew up in Gary (Indiana), that’s where my roots are, but my youth was spent all over the place—I call it my path of righteousness.”

Trying times were placed on his family when the steel mills closed in the Midwest leaving few job opportunities for his father, causing them to uproot. 

After stops in Illinois, Minnesota and Texas, the family was then on a westward trek to California when their car broke down in Arizona. His father had to sell the car and take the setback in stride. Arizona is where they would ultimately call home.

Refusing to focus on the struggles of his youth, Johnson instead locked his attention on what he could get out of the experiences. “It made me adapt to many different environments, be able to make friends in a lot of different places and relate to a lot of different cultures,” he said. His diverse experiences only fueled the ambition to raise the bar.

Johnson did not have to look far to find his own forms of incentive. Knowing that the potential he had inside had not yet manifested itself, his sole motivation was to set himself apart. 

Beating the Odds Takes Courage and Relentless Support

Johnson charged himself with the responsibility to be the one who set a new standard and avoid becoming a statistic of society—a different kind of statistic is what he would become.

One out of 12.

He was one out of 12 cousins and siblings growing up in the home along with six other adults. Half of the 12 children are now incarcerated or deceased, the other half is barely making it through life’s difficulties.

Johnson wanted something different for himself but never quite understood the courage it would take in order to tap into it. “I had this inner drive in me because I was running from so much—so much of my childhood,” he said. “No one ever really expected anything of me.”

However, defensive line coach Randy Hart and the University of Washington had great expectations of Johnson. They presented him with his first opportunity to break away from the ordinary with an athletic scholarship to the division one institution.

“It wasn’t until college and getting around a great coach that really brought a greatness out of me,” Johnson explained. Hart was a man that demanded excellence of him every day. Hart understood fully the project that Johnson would be and the magnitude of the accomplishments he could achieve.

“There were ups and downs as there would be with anyone else but when directed the right way, you could see the potential of what he was going to be,” Hart admitted. “We had to hug him, kick him, whatever it took to get him going.”

“If you had the potential in you, he brought it out by any means,” Johnson said of his coach. “I had never demanded that much of myself. He was relentless in his pursuit to bring it out of me.” 

Hart and the rest of Washington’s coaching staff did what they could to get through to Johnson during his collegiate years—even leaving him home on some road trips to send a message. They wanted to make sure that he knew there was an abundance of talent inside and help guide him into who he could be.

Many family members and friends did not applaud Johnson for carving his own pathway during college. This bred some resentment as Johnson felt that attending the university was his biggest accomplishment, and is still the most commonly overlooked—in some aspects, even bigger than the next stage that he would find himself on. 

Icing on the Cake

After four standout seasons at the University of Washington, Johnson had only scratched the surface of what he would become. His budding potential did not go unnoticed and he was selected in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. 

He had an immediate role on one of the leagues stoutest defenses and a new influx of distant relatives around him. The flood of new family was happy, surprised and they felt that this was his pinnacle.

Competing between the white lines was never a hard transition for the goliath 305-pound defensive lineman—it was just the icing on top. But when pure athleticism and maturity are not working in union, a rift can eventually form, separating a player from what is most important.

Johnson was entering into a testosterone-filled locker room of men competing to not only win games, but to feed their families and secure their livelihood. He explained that still being a kid at heart and mind did not always gel with the others around him.

Johnson recounted being told by a player, “Eventually that is going to catch up with you. You’re lightyears ahead athletically, but if you mature and take it seriously, you could be ahead of guys for a career.”

He took his lumps and learned a catalog of lessons during his early years in Chicago. Johnson listed his prime examples of professionalism:  offensive lineman Olin Kreutz (six-time Pro Bowl selection), Brian Urlacher (2005 Defensive Player of the Year), wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad (NFL’s leading receiver in yards and touchdowns in 2004), and safety Mike Brown (two-time All-Pro selection).

That kind of leadership helped Johnson to grow and it made the team better on a daily basis. He remembered times of being so afraid to make a mistake and Urlacher would tell him, “If you make a false-step, just go and I’ll cover for you.”

Knowing where he wanted to go but not knowing how to get there, Johnson used the people around him to help birth the potential awaiting inside. Each one of his unique experiences would be the pillars to help the kid from Gary, Indiana combat the odds making a splash in college football and surprise everyone but himself in making it to the NFL.

The level of relief of having coaches and players around him dedicated to making him better would allow Johnson to play fast, free, and mold into a game-changing interior lineman. “Having that kind of security with future Hall of Famers behind me was just a remarkable feeling,” he said. “I could literally do no wrong.”

Yet, wrongs would soon find the defensive lineman. In the midst of Johnson finding his groove on the football field, the wheels would slowly start to flow off track when he was away from the game.

In the next pass through Johnson’s path of righteousness, part two of his story with NFL Player Engagement, he would come to grips with great loss; but much like a bow and arrow, that loss would be the pullback to catapult Johnson head first into his life’s purpose. 


Vince Agnew is a former NFL cornerback who spent time with the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent out of Central Michigan University. He is a CMU Journalism graduate and previously participated in the NFL’s Sports Journalism and Radio Boot Camp.

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