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Eisenberg: Guest Speaker Captivates Ravens With Inspirational Message


Inky Johnson's voice practically shook the walls of the auditorium at the Under Armour Performance Center as he spoke to the Ravens earlier this week.

Pacing back and forth, he delivered his poignant message with a preacher's fervor, riveting the players who had showered and dressed and were seated at individual desks at the end of another long day of practice.

"When my life changed in an instant, I wasn't going to quit! I had no right to quit! Just because I was confronted with something I didn't like?" Johnson exclaimed.

A former star defensive back at the University of Tennessee, he paused dramatically to let his comments soak in before continuing.

"Everyone deals with things in life they don't like! The question is how are you going to react?" he said. "When people give up, I guarantee you, you can trace it back to I, I, I, me, me, me. 'I ain't getting what I want. This ain't turning out like I want.'"

He paused again. Ninety football players crammed into a room have seldom been quieter.

"When cats shift from me to we, that's when legendary happens," Johnson declared.

Inquoris "Inky" Johnson, 30, was a senior on the radar of NFL scouts when he suffered permanent nerve damage in his right shoulder while making a tackle against Air Force on Sept. 9, 2006. He never played football again, and a decade later, his withered right arm hangs loosely.

But though his NFL dream abruptly ended, the ebullient Johnson didn't let the injury deter him. Expected to be hospitalized for weeks after undergoing nerve repair surgery, he was out in three days and back at football practice, supporting his teammates. A product of one of Atlanta's toughest neighborhoods, he went on to earn a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Tennessee and now works as a motivational speaker.

"Life always puts us in situations that test our true character. How are you going to react?" he said to the Ravens.

Morgan Cox, the Ravens' long snapper, played with Johnson at Tennessee and first mentioned him to Head Coach John Harbaugh last year. Cox also filled in Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' senior vice president of public and community relations, on Johnson's background, prompting Byrne to ask Harbaugh about possibly bringing in Johnson to speak to the team.

"My response was 'Let's do it,'" Harbaugh said. "He has such a gift. He has an amazing faith. He challenges you. He doesn't mince words. He's very strong and to the point and doesn't accept any excuses. It's such a great message."

Harbaugh occasionally invites outside speakers to address the team. In recent years, the list has included Maryland governor Larry Hogan, who battled cancer in his first year in office; Brian Billick, the Ravens' head coach when they won the 2000 Super Bowl; Jessica Long, a Paralympic gold medal swimmer; Tom Crean, Indiana basketball coach and Harbaugh's brother in law; and Dan Dierdorf, a Hall of Fame lineman who became a broadcaster. Former Raven Rob Burnett spoke to the team several days before Inky Johnson.

"You never know exactly what you're going to get. But it's never bad," Harbaugh said. "You ask them to speak for a reason, because they have something to say that's consistent with what we're all about."

Olympic hero Michael Phelps surely will have an opportunity when he comes to practice later this year, Harbaugh said.

"It's good for the players to hear another person's story. I think we all appreciate that," Harbaugh said. "I think it definitely makes us a better team. It builds your culture, your world view, the way we see things, the values, what we stand for. It just solidifies all that."

Harbaugh was particularly moved when Inky Johnson explained that he had grown up with 14 relatives and no father figure in a two-room house; that his mother and grandmother worked multiple jobs to enable him to go to a top school and further his football dream.

"The fact that that dream ended didn't give me the right to give up," he said. "My spirit wouldn't let me. My mother wouldn't let me!"

He continued, bringing his message to this culmination: "I know you can play the game of football, but that's not the challenge. The challenge is when you're no longer playing and you've got a son, a family … can you lead them the same way you've led in the game of football?"

Several players held their cell phones aloft, videoing Johnson's remarks.

"Who you are as a man is way more important than who you are as a football player," he said.

At the end of his speech, applause filled the room.

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