By Vince Agnew, Player Engagement Insider
After coming from a large family with so little, bouncing from state to state and managing to claw his way to relevance, Tank Johnson would again find himself on the wrong side of things. Marred by outside events, raw talent alone would not be enough to keep Johnson among the league’s elite. Instead he would be kept in the peripheral of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
One event was a single beat away from stealing everything Tank was working to gain, and landed him in a seat directly across from the commissioner. Johnson would narrowly survive all of his trials—but some family and friends around him would not make it.
Trials & Tribulations
The 2005 Chicago Bears flaunted a dominant defense led by legendary linebackers who were complimented by Tank Johnson and co. paving the way in the trenches.
The club rebounded from a slow start after winning just one of their first four games; but they would prove that it’s how you finish, not start. They would lead the league in several statistical categories and run off ten wins in the next eleven games on the way to claiming the NFC North title.
In the middle of that historic run, Johnson started a streak of his own. He was arrested in Chicago for the possession of a handgun in his vehicle. At that time, Illinois was the only sate in the country that did not issue concealed carry permits.
“I was carrying guns, my friends were carrying guns,” he stated. “Here I am, a professional athlete. I didn’t have anyone trying to harm me—but my friends might. And that’s why they carried guns.”
Johnson explained that he was not getting in trouble for violent or malicious criminal things, but because of a lack of accountability. “I got in trouble by just not realizing that more was required of me because of what I did have,” he said. “I was young and not very mature.” He was sentenced to probation and community service following the arrest.
This was the beginning of Johnson’s legal troubles. Because of his name, his status, and the company that he kept, Johnson quickly became the target of everyone’s scrutiny.
There was guilt that plagued him for experiencing things without loved ones. It fueled him to help the people around him to have a better life and to work tirelessly to bring them to a higher level.
“I didn’t feel like because I was in the pros that I should have to hang out with other professionals and famous people,” he said. “I would just hang out with the people that I had my whole life—and that cost me.”
The next string of run-ins would force him to realize that having those wrong people around him—people that he loved and cared for like family—would ultimately tear him down.
As a direct result of one of these relationships, in December of 2006 police raided Johnson’s home and he was found in violation of probation. He was charged with possession of unlicensed weapons—even though he was not home at the time of the raid.
Johnson’s best friend William Posey was in the home and because of his actions the raid was ordered. Johnson said, “He was so hurt and so upset that he had brought that negative light on me, because it had nothing to do with me.”
But even after Johnson’s home was raided and his career now hanging in the balance, he kept his close connection to the long-time friend. However, Posey would make one more fatal mistake that would leave the heartbreak of a lifetime.
Days later, while at a Chicago nightclub, Johnson and others were enjoying an evening out. During the night an altercation erupted involving Posey.
“After all of this stuff we’d dealt with, he didn’t love me enough to just fall back,” Johnson said. “He decided that it was about him at that moment and got in a fight.”
Johnson attempted to intervene and extract his friend from the crowd and out of the corner of his eye he saw people begin to go crazy. He said the voice of God spoke to him then clearly in the midst of the commotion, “You have three seconds to get back.”
One. Two. Three.
“I moved back, the gun went off, and my friend laid there dead,” Johnson said. “He got shot right where I was pulling him.” Posey would never have the opportunity to rectify what went wrong that night. He was pronounced dead at the scene of the crime.
“He lost his life because he couldn’t control his temper,” Johnson explained. “I almost died in that situation.”
Following the dramatic incidents, Tank was released from the Bears where he had spent the first three years of his career. As predicted by his teammates, poor judgment rather than poor play had finally caught up to him and he would begin serving a sixty-day sentence in jail for the violation of his probation.
This is where things came together for the now vilified athlete. He would need to rededicate himself to being accountable and to being the best person that he could be. “I realized that as a professional athlete, to whom much is given, much is required,” Johnson said. “I needed to change the things that I was doing.”
That change started inside Johnson, but it would take time before the world could see it, or even believe it. The media was relentless as he faced the cover of the Sun Times. Johnson felt isolated from society, like the child that everyone is making fun of—nobody wanted anything to do with him. There were new labels of “thug and criminal” and remarks that, “He can’t stay out of trouble. He should have never been drafted.”
It would take an immense amount of patience and guidance to see Johnson through the onslaught of criticism. The heartache of loss and the re-commitment to accountability would be the compass leading him to redemption.
Something Greater than Wins and More Inspiring than Losses
Spotlight is something that many professional athletes learn to thrive under, for this is where stars are realized; but Johnson was at a point in his career where he wanted to escape the brightest lights.
The name Tank Johnson was synonymous with anything negative. He knew that he would need to build a new circle with close family, formulate a plan and set some goals to get away from the place that he was in. “Everyday I woke up, I was working towards something,” Johnson said. “That kept things from easily pulling me off of where I wanted to be.”
Now jobless, there was one organization that was willing to take a chance on the embattled lineman—the Dallas Cowboys. However, Johnson would be forced to serve an eight-game suspension stemming from his transgressions.
Although the stay in Dallas was his shortest with a club during his career, Johnson expressed an eternal gratitude to the Cowboys and their owner and general manager, Jerry Jones, for allowing him an opportunity to do what he loved again. It was a game that saved him from his upbringing and hardships once again.
But, Johnson knew that the celebrity status of playing for America’s team would not be beneficial if he was going to totally rehabilitate himself from the inside-out.
Cincinnati was perfect.
At the time of Johnson’s signing, the culture around the Bengals was bad news. All too often its players were in the media for of the wrong reasons—something he could relate to. Tank knew that he would take the baggage of his past no matter where he went, but wanted to use it as his tool to positively influence players one at a time.
“I had the best time of my career in Cincinnati,” Johnson said of his two-year stay with the club. “I was in a position to be a veteran in the locker room. I was the big homie that gave advice to all of the young guys—and to me that felt better than sacks and tackles.”
The franchise had struggled for many years and he was a part of the turn around in getting to the playoffs. The wins were just the cherry on top for Johnson while he, more importantly, reestablished his credibility within the NFL family before retiring from the game. “That’s why I’m a Bengals fan for life,” he said.
Experience is like gold in life, and Johnson was humbled in the most intense way during those years. A price tag could never be placed on the perspectives that he gained. He never allowed himself to be consumed by the swirl of attention, both positive and negative, and he now finds himself at peace with the path he is on.
After retiring, he started a program called Moving the Chains. This is a social rehabilitation program, teaching players to create distance between their adversities and their desired successes. He was also speaking to the leagues new crop of players at the NFL Rookie Symposium each year.
Johnson is married to wife Lorri and they have two daughters, Cheva (13-years old) and Chanel (11-years old), who constantly inspire him. He recently received his sociology degree from his alma mater, University of Washington. “It was a 16-year journey and I wanted that experience for myself,” Johnson explained. “As a father, as a husband, I wanted my kids to understand to never quit.”
He finished his degree while completing the NFL’s internship program this summer, an initiative set in place by commissioner Goodell with Johnson in mind. Forging a relationship with the commissioner during his troubled times had become a beneficial bond indeed. Once an anchor of the leagues most forceful defensive unit, Tank traded in football equipment to complete a stint helping the league thrive from the other side—but it will not stop there.
Johnson is currently working on a project called The Modern Athlete. This is an initiative to emphasize how the combination of charitable endeavors, social media and play on the field are creating opportunities for athletes more than any time in history.
His goal is to change lives. Capitalizing on each of his life experiences, he hopes to use them to continue molding young athletes so that they will not make the same mistakes that he did.
In Tank Johnson’s journey to this point, he has navigated many of life’s twists and turns, some self-inflicted and others uncontrollable. At times he steered through them with grace and others required a little grace from above. A near death experience, playing in a Super Bowl, retirement, marriage, the birth of his children and recent college degree are just a few of the highs, lows, and resurgences that make this former player’s story worth knowing, worth learning from, and worth rooting for.