Anthony Johnson played football from high school through an 11-year NFL career. Today, he’s the Jacksonville Jaguars’ chaplain, and possibly the most low-key former NFL player you’ll ever meet.
He’s an Indiana native who went to Notre Dame on a scholarship. He had, at that time, a single focus to his life: “Playing football, my passion since I was young,”
He says, “I played through high school and was good enough to get a football scholarship to Notre Dame. I graduated in 1990 and was drafted in the second round by the Indianapolis Colts.”
Anthony played 11 seasons as a running back for five different NFL teams. The last was the Jaguars, which he joined for the 2000 season before retiring.
“During the course of that time, I had the opportunity to be impacted by the chaplains on several different teams,” he says. “Seeing the impact they had on me when I was playing was part of what encouraged me to take the opportunity to do the same.”
The need for an NFL chaplain is not well understood, he says.
“Playing in the NFL, obviously you have a lot of highs, a lot of great things and awesome opportunities. But at the same time, you have a lot of stress, a lot of tension and a lot of challenging experiences. They’re deep things, sometimes things that really challenge you in your soul. You’re a young kid, coming out of school, and all of a sudden, you’ve been given millions of dollars sometimes. You have everything that the world wants – you have money, health, prestige – you’re on a platform. That sets you up as a target. And here’s the one thing you don’t expect: Sometimes family can come at you and see you as dollar a sign,” he says.
NFL chaplains work for a ministry and aren’t paid by the teams. Anthony is employed by Athletes in Action, the sports ministry of Cru.
He says the need chaplains fill is as practical as it is spiritual.
“All they want is an opportunity to help you. With the Jaguars and my situation, Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell have really opened the door and said, ‘Hey, you’re part of the team. Be here every day and travel with the team, engage to the extent that’s appropriate and is necessary,’” he says.
It wasn’t a role that Johnson jumped into quickly after he retired in 2000.
“I took, as my wife would say, a long time to decide what I wanted to do. But what I didn’t want to do is feel compelled and constrained into doing things that I really wasn’t passionate about. I was passionate about my faith, and so after a couple of years, I realized, that’s what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he says.
Although every NFL team has a chaplain, most are not former players. And the job has no defined work parameters, other than that you serve at the invitation of the team.
“We’re very much like your missionaries,” Johnson says. “There’s a need for us to engage with those who would share in the heart and the passion of what we’re doing.”
Over the years, he has changed in subtle ways.
“You’d see me far more relaxed, far more at peace with my wife, my kids, with the job and what I’m doing, with the players,” he says.
And although he never loses sight of the spiritual purpose of his calling, Anthony Johnson can sum up his role in a practical way.
“Help people in the ways that you’ve been helped, reach out to those in the ways that you’ve been reached out to. I think it’s an axiom of living. Whether it’s religious or not, it’s a pretty good way to approach things.”