INDIANAPOLIS — A battered veteran football player was icing his knee at training camp. “Here we go again, Rev,” he said to a team chaplain.
Moments later, one of the last rookies to join the team came by, exuberant. “Here we go!” he said to the chaplain, followed by a string of conversation: how the chaplain had spoken to the rookie’s team years earlier, how the rookie had waited his whole life for this moment and so on.
That’s how Ken Johnson remembers that day at training camp in 2010, on the cusp of another season for the National Football League’s Indianapolis Colts.
He said the two types of “here we go” — one uplifting, one downtrodden — are there each morning before a person. For public servants, it’s a crucial daily choice, he said.
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Johnson, who serves as Protestant chaplain for the team, will seek to encourage police officers and firefighters Saturday during a banquet at Fortville Christian Church. He’s been offering that same encouragement to professional football players for 27 years.
The pastor, author and motivational speaker didn’t set out to become any of those.
“I thought I was going to be a coach and a teacher,” he said. “This was the furthest thing from my mind.”
A football scholarship in 1979 to the University of Tulsa, where he studied education, fit with those plans. Yet during college, the plans began to change.
Teammates talked about their Christian faith; Johnson said in those years, he “saw authentic Christian people” for the first time. Hearing NFL legends Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys and Cowboys coach Tom Landry talk about how important their faith was to them also made an impression on Johnson, who grew up in inner-city Dallas. So he began his own faith journey.
During those years, he was “seeing men who exemplified a standard,” Johnson said. “People often don’t know to do better until they’re shown better.”
These days, he tries to model that standard for other men as they navigate the ups, downs and scrutiny of life in the NFL. He and an assistant offer weekly chapel services, two Bible studies — one for players, one for coaches — and one-on-one meetings with those who request them.
Some of the temptations of fame and fortune have remained largely the same through the years, he said. Players are like gods, Johnson said, practically worshiped by some fans. And as salaries have risen and social media have granted greater access to every move, players are also under a microscope — particularly if there’s a wreck, a bar fight or a domestic dispute.
“Thirty years ago … it took months before anybody heard about it,” Johnson said. “Now, it can be broadcast the second it happens.”
Some of the guys wanting to meet with him are the ones in that type of crisis. But there are others who want to avoid any of that, who know they need someone to help them stay grounded and come to him first. He particularly wants to be a mentor to players who may not have had a father figure growing up.
When Johnson’s own football-playing days came to a close after college, he was a police officer in Tulsa for six years. He knows public safety officers respond to some horrific situations and said they aren’t always appreciated for their work. He hopes to express gratitude to public servants when he speaks at Fortville Christian Church.
Among the acts of service the church chose for its annual Be the Gift project in December was an appreciation banquet. Fortville’s police officers, firefighters and town officials will be the invited guests, with church members doing the decorating, food serving and cleanup.
Stan Good, a member of the church’s Be the Gift team, said Johnson’s experience as a police officer was one factor that made organizers feel he was a good fit to speak at the event.
“He is an outstanding talent,” Good said. “Understanding that this is a night devoted to thanking those service workers from Fortville, we feel blessed to have a nationally known speaker.”
Johnson’s fame has come in various ways. He and his wife, Della, reach out through the nonprofit Emerging Eagles program. He speaks to various teams and classes, and last year, he appeared on WETV’s reality show “Match Made in Heaven,” offering spiritual guidance to retired NFL player Stevie Baggs Jr. as Baggs met 18 eligible women and tried to select Miss Right.
Saturday, Johnson hopes to encourage his audience in Fortville to choose well, too.
“With officers and people in public service, you have to have a ‘here we go again’ mentality,” Johnson said. “Either ‘Here we go again, and it’s going to be hard,’ or ‘Here we go again, and it’s going to be awesome,’” he said.
“Their attitude and their response to the things they have to do can have all the difference in the world.”
During the season just completed, the Indianapolis Colts honored the 2006 team that won Super Bowl XLI in February 2007 in Miami.
Johnson said of his years serving the Colts, “Hands down, the (Coach Tony) Dungy years and the Super Bowl rank at the top.” He hopes to use a photo of the team praying with the Lombardi Trophy among them on the cover of his next book.
Johnson said he kept track of “God moments” from that season.
He said a snowstorm before a playoff game in Baltimore looked like it would threaten the Colts’ arrival, but it broke the next day when the team began its travels there. Tight end Dallas Clark had a torn ACL and was not expected to be able to play in that game, but Johnson said an MRI showed it had healed; Clark would make a crucial third-down catch in the final minutes. The Colts won the game, and the snowstorm resumed as they were leaving Baltimore, Johnson said.
Next up was facing the New England Patriots at home in the RCA Dome to see who would face the Chicago Bears in the big game.
“It was so electric in that stadium when we beat New England,” Johnson said. “I don’t think I’ve ever on earth experienced that kind of joy in a public setting.”
He remembers the unity he saw — black and white, rich and poor, “People who don’t even talk to one another on the street hugging and kissing.”