Honoring Inky: Jersey choice more than just a number for Berry

He taught me to never be scared of anybody. Always, always go as hard as I can whether it's in a workout or a classroom because you never know. . .

Eric Berry on Inky Johnson

Inky  Johnson at the South Carolina game on October 27, 2007.

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Inky Johnson at the South Carolina game on October 27, 2007.

Eric  Berry responds to questions during a news conference after he was selected as the fifth overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round of the NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall, Thursday, April 22, 2010, in New York.

Photo by AP Photo/Stephen Chernin

Eric Berry responds to questions during a news conference after he was selected as the fifth overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round of the NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall, Thursday, April 22, 2010, in New York.

Twenty-nine is more than a number for Eric Berry.

There are a couple of small reasons why the digit means so much - and one big one.

Highway 29 runs right through Berry's hometown of Fairburn, Ga. Berry's birthday is Dec. 29.

Those two reasons, however, pale in comparison to the driving force behind Berry's decision to wear No. 29 when he takes the field for the Kansas City Chiefs this fall.

Berry would have done most anything to get the number. Doing so means honoring one of the most beloved former players in recent UT history: Inky Johnson, the former defensive back who suffered a devastating shoulder injury in 2006 and still has little use of his right arm.

"Inky has been a mentor to me while I was at Tennessee, not just on the field, but off the field also," Berry said. "There was a lot of times he talked to me about taking pride in the game.

"You never know when it could be your last snap. I watched a lot of film on Inky. He played the game that way and I felt like if I didn't play the game that way, it would be disrespecting him."

Berry said he would have paid for the jersey number had it not been available. Lucky for his soon-to-be bulging wallet, it was not being used by the Chiefs, who picked him with the fifth pick in the NFL draft on Thursday.

However, Berry was ready to write the check. After all, Berry, then a freshman, had promised to use Johnson's jersey number when Johnson was a graduate assistant at UT. Berry also wore the number during one game as a Vol.

Johnson, who has been widely praised for his inspirational leadership in his three seasons as a coach, is no longer with UT's football team. The time away from his family to be a graduate assistant became too much.

Still harboring some thoughts of coaching in high school, Johnson now works in UT's development office and hopes to be a candidate for head coach Derek Dooley's yet-to-be-filled Character Development Coordinator position.

Berry didn't need any sort of character overhaul when he arrived at UT; his family had long taken care of that. But, the future All-American did need some fine-tuning.

Berry, like most freshmen, was a little intimidated by the college atmosphere despite landing a starting position by September. Berry wasn't yet comfortable being a leader. Johnson helped alter that mindset.

"He taught me when I first got there not to be scared, to speak up," Berry said. "He told me to come out of my shell, not to be scared because I'm a freshman or whatever.

"He's like 'I've got a gift so I've got to go ahead and use it.' "

Subsequently, Berry grew into the leader that his teammates soon appreciated. And as hard as it is to imagine, Berry hinted that there was a time at UT when he didn't approach football like he does now.

That was before he watched Johnson's highlight tape. Then, Berry understood what it as like to play with the sort of intensity for which he is known.

Berry watched Johnson, who was well under 6 feet tall and 200 pounds take on bigger offensive players like Notre Dame receiver Jeff Samardzija and California tailback Marshawn Lynch.

"Those are big guys," Berry said. "He taught me to never be scared of anybody. Always, always go as hard as I can whether it's in a workout or a classroom because you never know. . . . He was smaller than other people but you never saw him back down from other people."

A humbled Johnson isn't ready to take credit for Berry's well-chronicled hitting ability.

"I think he had that in him already," Johnson said.

The bond between Berry and Johnson grew from their Atlanta roots as the two defensive backs made their way through college football. It could have continued on into the NFL.

Despite his size, Johnson seemed to have NFL potential before his career ended with one violent tackle in that fateful Air Force game.

Now, his old No. 29 will play on - on the field and in the stands.

"I'll be the first one to go out and buy a jersey," Johnson said with a laugh.

And while that No. 29 has some strong meaning, its existence just scratches the surface of a special relationship.

"I just told him whether he wears 29 or not, I'm always going to be behind him and supporting him," Johnson said. "It's a great honor. I've got a lot of respect for him."

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Comments » 18

jandrew5 writes:

Favorite NFL teams:
Titans
Colts
Chiefs

volpreacherman writes:

I appreciate the fact that even though he was dealt a difficult lot in life he has not lost his desire to impact the lives around him for the good. Thanks Inky for the inspiration!

punkin writes:

I'll be the first one to go out and buy a jersey," Johnson said with a laugh.

Not if I can get there first, Inky,

taylorsvolfan writes:

Just can't say enough about EB !

probono99#255080 writes:

No disrespect to the author of the article, but Marshawn Lynch played for Cal not Miami

Congrats to all the Vols who were drafted!

echapin (staff) writes:

in response to probono99#255080:

No disrespect to the author of the article, but Marshawn Lynch played for Cal not Miami

Congrats to all the Vols who were drafted!

Thanks for pointing out our error. It's been fixed!

britt writes:

Inky is gonna have to beat me to the store for that jersey. 2 of my all time favorite Vols

V_O_L_S_GO_VOLS_GO writes:

2 stand up, top-notch, classy guys. Great to have men like this represent our school.

Gator_Hater (Inactive) writes:

Hopefully if Inky decides to coach H.S. ball he could get on the staff down in Fairburn and help develop the Berry twins. That would be unreal!

Mobbdeep4life writes:

Very classy act.
I always admired Inky's toughness. After Jason Allen's injury Inky stepped up and looked destined for great things that next year. His injury was very tragic. I hope Inky gets that position and remains involved with UT Athletics. There are other players that he can mentor.

BillyVol writes:

People who care about others before themselves will be successful in life, no matter what.

UTVOLSRROCKN writes:

Running out of words to describe Eric Berry, so I will say this time, " I love you man" and let Inky have that position. UT NEEDS him!

Mobbdeep4life writes:

in response to UTVOLSRROCKN:

Running out of words to describe Eric Berry, so I will say this time, " I love you man" and let Inky have that position. UT NEEDS him!

Agree. UT needs people like Inky.

HallowedHill writes:

Wow. Guys like this make me proud to be a Tennessee Vol!

GO VOLS!

golfballs03 writes:

What a nice story. I hope Inky lands that spot on Dooley's staff. Having him around the program is a plus.

iowa_vol writes:

I think that it would speak volumes of Coach Dooley's committment to UT Vol alumni if they would put Inky Johnson in that position. Here is a young man who worked his tail off on the field and didn't create any contoversy off of it. After the injury ended his career, he found a way to continue to contribute to the program. His ability to help these young men realize that every snap may be their last is exactly waht is needed in the charachter development position. I will buy my son the 29 UT jersey first, because it all started with Inky. Give him the job Coach Dooley...it is the right thing to do.

tnsportsman writes:

Very classy move Eric and thank you for all you have done and will do for TENNESSEE! CDD, HIRE INKY NOW for player development!

WE ARE UT! Eric and Inky are certainly UT!

GO VOLS!

Titan writes:

Character Development position seems tailored made for Inky. Hire the man DD.

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