This story appears in FCA Magazine’s March/April 2018 issue.
Microphone on, stage set and a crowd awaiting. By 1999, such a scene routinely gave Ernie Johnson comfort. As the lead anchor and face of TNT Sports, he prepared with earnest tenacity for every show, searching for the appropriate words, statistics and nuance to share with his audience. Johnson's energy and professionalism in front of a camera had made him a household friend to millions of sports fans.
But on this morning in late December 1999, he was nervous.
Johnson's audience (about 1,000) was a tiny fraction of his normal viewership, but this was in person, not on TV. And sports were not the primary topic. The Peach Bowl FCA Breakfast in Atlanta was an event to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to coaches and athletes before the annual bowl game.
He arrived on the recommendation of Tim Cash, a close friend. For almost two years, Cash had walked in faith with Johnson. Together, the men studied how the Bible related to their lives, one a former professional baseball pitcher and the other a famous TV host.
Cash spoke at the event the previous three years, but he had a different idea for this year, and he shared it over the phone with Atlanta FCA Area Director Sid Callaway.
"It's time for him to start sharing his faith publicly," Cash told Callaway.
"Who is it?" Callaway asked, pondering possible athletes.
"It's Ernie Johnson," Cash responded.
"Are you serious?!" Callaway shouted.
"The dude's been walking with Jesus," Cash said. "He's legit, but it's time."
FCA's event was Johnson's maiden voyage. While uneasy at first, he shared his testimony, explaining how he came to Christ at age 41. He illustrated — with his usual calm and clear tone — how God changed his life.
"The first time you're in front of a room of 1,000 people and you're delivering the gospel," Johnson said, "you grow that way."
Cash watched as Johnson showed the audience a silver coin. Imprinted on the coin was 1997, the year Johnson became a believer. He told the crowd he kept that coin as a reminder of his new birth, his salvation.
"Ernie crushed it," Cash said.
When the event ended, Cash knew he was right: Johnson's first faith message was just the beginning of God's plan.
Ernie Johnson has worked with Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley for almost two decades.
• • •
Before Johnson loved Jesus Christ, he loved his father.
Ernie Johnson Sr. was a stellar relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves. In 1957, he helped the Braves win the World Series. When the Braves moved to Atlanta, he became the team's broadcaster. Following him almost everywhere — to the ballpark, banquets and luncheons — was his son.
Throughout Ernie Jr.'s childhood, his father taught him to cherish life. Their bond came through sports and laughter, which sometimes intertwined. During one of Ernie Jr.'s little league games in the mid-1960s, the opposing team hit a ground-rule double over the fence. The center fielder and left fielder, Ernie Jr.'s teammates, wanted to retrieve the ball. But they got distracted when they found ripe blackberries in the woods. Their mid-game snack provided much laughter for Ernie Jr. and his father.
Ernie Jr. learned to appreciate life's "blackberry moments" — those unexpected happenings that make life extraordinary — from his father.
Later, he used his sense of humor to start a relationship with Cheryl, a bank teller in Macon, Georgia. Johnson, then working at WMAZ Channel 13, would deposit his checks at Cheryl's bank, and she agreed to date Johnson because he was funny. She reciprocated her interest by giving him crushed lollipops through the bank's drawer. When Johnson married Cheryl on Aug. 21, 1982, his best man was his father.
In 1990, Johnson received the promotion from Turner Broadcasting that propelled his career.
He began hosting "Inside the NBA," TNT's pregame and postgame show now beloved by fans for its creative format and honest, off-the-cuff discussions. Johnson's teammates on the show — Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O'Neal — are all either Hall of Famers or NBA champions (or, in O'Neal's case, both). Managing and navigating the egos, debates, stats, highlights and commercial breaks is Johnson, the host who possesses such an elegant style that "Inside the NBA" has won 10 Emmys.
The show skyrocketed in popularity when executive producer Tim Kiely urged Johnson to ditch the teleprompter. "Inside the NBA," in essence, became unscripted.
Now 61, Johnson knows his life is also unscripted, and that became the one-word title of his autobiography, released last year.
Play-by-play broadcaster Ron Thulin was one of the first people Johnson met when he joined Turner. Both newcomers to the company, the men became friends while traveling to sporting events together.
"TV is a battle of egos," said Thulin, also an FCA volunteer in Dallas. "Everybody is kind of afraid to let their guard down. Ernie never put a guard up, and he knew I never did."
By 1997, Johnson's biggest purpose in life was to be the best broadcaster he could be.
"I thought that was the most important thing," he said.
His oldest children, Eric and Maggie, asked Johnson and Cheryl why they, as a family, didn't go to church. After talking with Cheryl, the couple decided to take their children to Crossroads, a nondenominational church they drove by all the time in north Atlanta.
Johnson was moved at the first service he attended. Pastor Kevin Myers asked the congregation two questions: Who's the provider in your family, and are you pursuing happiness or wholeness?
Myers' questions challenged Johnson, who knew he needed to be a better husband and father. Johnson returned to Crossroads the next three weeks, and then asked Myers to lunch. On Wednesday, Dec. 10, 1997, Johnson had a life-changing "blackberry moment": At an O'Charley's restaurant, he prayed to God and became a Christian.
• • •
Before Johnson could talk, he needed to learn how to walk.
The following year, Johnson joined one of Crossroads' men's Bible studies. Each Friday morning, after hosting "Inside the NBA" the previous night, Johnson met Doug Moran and 10 other men at church at 6 a.m.
"He just happened to be one of the guys," Moran said. "That's the way he wanted it."
“Faith can't be a slice of your life. It's got to be the crust of that entire pie, so that you're viewing everything that goes on through the lens of faith. That's where FCA is at its best.” — Ernie Johnson.A few months later, through a friend, Cash learned of Johnson's newfound faith. Johnson joined another men's Bible study, this one led by Cash, who started the group for believers who find themselves in the public eye. Johnson has been in the group ever since.
The men — including Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, popular comedian Jeff Foxworthy and former Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton — discussed the Bible in a curtained-off section of JR's Log House, a barbecue restaurant. The privacy away from other customers and potential fans created an environment where everyone could be their authentic selves. The group studied, prayed and did outreach programs.
Johnson became the designated Bible reader because the group loved the smoothness of his voice.
"He was our version of James Earl Jones reading the Bible," said Cash, who mentored athletes for Unlimited Potential, a sports ministry, before becoming a pastor in 2011.
Johnson is grateful for both Bible study groups, which showed him how difficult it could be to live a life of faith without accountability and camaraderie. He loved exchanging ideas with fellow fathers, husbands and businessmen — a weekly "Inside the Bible."
"It was invaluable to go through situations and see what the Bible says," Johnson said. "This [became] the road map for my life."
Cash, along with Thulin, exposed Johnson to the ministry of FCA. Since his first testimony at the 1999 Peach Bowl FCA Breakfast, Johnson has hosted the event and interviewed athletes about their faith for the past 17 years. He appreciates the mentorship and discipleship aspects of the ministry.
"Faith can't be a slice of your life," he said. "It's got to be the crust of that entire pie, so that you're viewing everything that goes on through the lens of faith. That's where FCA is at its best."
• • •
Before Johnson could serve the public, he needed to serve his family.
While he has unique bonds with all his "Inside the NBA" co-hosts (especially Barkley, whom he's worked closely with since 2000), none of them are his best teammates. That title belongs to Cheryl. Her "blackberry moment" of giving her life to Christ came on March 25, 1998.
Even before they became believers, Myers had explained to the couple how he saw God working in their lives when they adopted four children out of love, empathy and compassion.
In 1990, Cheryl watched a "20/20" special report on the overcrowded orphanages in Romania. Thousands of children were being neglected. Five months later, in 1991, Cheryl convinced Johnson to adopt Michael, a 3-year-old boy with special needs. Michael eventually learned how to walk and later speak. Two years later, Johnson and Cheryl adopted Carmen from Paraguay.
FCA Magazine Devotional:
Surrender To Serve
By Sarah Rennicke
Service is a state of the heart, a bending of our own will to seek that of our Father. Read more
"She has taught me so much," Johnson said of Cheryl. "I wanted to play it safe sometimes. She had bigger dreams."
In her professional life, Cheryl has worked with Metro Atlanta Recovery Residences, a nonprofit organization helping women recover from substance addiction. In 2008, she became the president and CEO of Street Grace, a faith-based nonprofit that intends to end domestic minor sex trafficking. Through Street Grace, Cheryl and Johnson adopted Allison and Ashley, half-sisters, in 2011.
"You have to put other people first," Johnson said. "This can't be all about you."
As his faith grew, Johnson considered leaving TNT. Should he continue his career after turning his life over to God? Should he try to find a faith-based job? He asked Cheryl what he should do. She responded on his spiritual birthday by giving him a large compass as a gift. Cheryl's handwritten note with it reminded him to remember the day he found his ultimate direction in life — and to let God direct him.
"The Lord put Cheryl and Ernie together 36 years ago knowing this would come," Thulin said. "He knew their hearts."
Ernie and Cheryl Johnson (back row, far right) celebrated Father's Day in 2016 with their six children - Maggie, Carmen, Michael, Eric, Allison and Ashley - and Ernie's mother, Lois.
Johnson stayed with TNT. He knew the platform God gave him would provide opportunities for him to share his faith.
One such moment came in August 2003 when, after noticing a bump near his left ear, he was diagnosed with stage two non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Johnson met with Myers at a Starbucks. They chose to put their faith in God that Johnson's cancer battle would be for His glory. Myers also wrote two words — "trust" and "period" — on a Starbucks napkin.
Johnson used those words to create a mantra for his treatment: "Trust God ... Period."
In 2006, after fans noticed his growth, he was candid about his cancer after the NBA's All-Star weekend. Six grueling chemotherapy treatments later, Johnson's cancer was in remission, where it has remained since. He returned to "Inside the NBA" on Oct. 31, 2006, and never missed a show. A year later, Johnson won the Emmy for outstanding studio host. He could sense his father's smile over the phone that night.
"God sometimes whispers and sometimes shouts that His way is better than my way," Johnson said during his acceptance speech.
Several years later, Johnson experienced hardship again when his father died on August 12, 2011, at age 87. Four weeks later, Michael, who has muscular dystrophy, had to be put on a ventilator to remain alive. Since then, Johnson spends most of his mornings caring for Michael, now 29, at their home. With his son unable to do anything on his own, Johnson bathes and shaves Michael and helps suction his lungs of phlegm to clear congestion.
In a moving ESPN "E:60" profile on Johnson's family, the piece features Michael's knowledge and love of cars. Every year, Johnson takes his son to the Atlanta International Auto Show. When Johnson brings Michael to his Bible study on Thursdays, some of the men bring car magazines.
"The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served," Johnson said. "Being a servant is where I find myself."
• • •
Before Johnson could share his thoughts with the world, he needed to write his script.
Nov. 10, 2016, was not the time for "Inside the NBA" to be completely unscripted. Executives had given Johnson, Barkley, Smith and O'Neal around two minutes each to express their feelings on the recent presidential election that left the country divided.
"We realized everybody in the world is talking about this election," Johnson said. "We're going to talk about it, too."
What could be done with just two minutes?
In those 135 seconds, since shared millions and millions of times on social media, Johnson told the audience something few sports broadcasters ever have. He told the viewers he couldn't vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Instead, he voted for John Kasich, "knowing full well [he] wasn't going to win, but I left with a clear conscience."
"I'm here to pray for my leaders. That is as honest and transparent as I can possibly be." — Ernie Johnson.Then he shared the most important message.
"I never know from one election to the next who's going be in the Oval Office, but I always know who's on the throne," Johnson said into the camera. "I'm on this earth because God created me, and that's Who I answer to. I'm a Christian. I follow a guy named Jesus; you might have heard of Him. And the greatest commandment He gave me was to love others. And Scripture also tells us to pray for our leaders, and that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to pray for Donald Trump."
Within less than a week, the clip became the most socially engaged NBA-related segment in TNT's history.
"I'm here to pray for my leaders," Johnson said. "That is as honest and transparent as I can possibly be."
When he left the studio that night, another thought entered his mind. He had been at Turner for 27 years "for such a time as this."
The overwhelming majority of comments from online viewers of Johnson's testimony were positive. His Twitter following ballooned, and several Christian leaders praised him. Johnson believes his tenure at TNT, the fact that people had watched him for years, helped him build equity.
Johnson's friends were encouraged and amazed.
"He glorifies God, and he does it for the good of his neighbor," Cash said. "The dude has a gift to be a peacemaker."
"He's set the bar very high for all of us to publicly stand for the Lord," Thulin said. "When Ernie did that, it made me realize I've got to be even more vocal."
More than a year later, Johnson still prays for the President.
Ernie Johnson received the Tom Landry Excellence of Character award with Ron Thulin and Rick Bowles.
• • •
Before he accepted his award, Johnson needed to share his story.
Johnson arrived in Irving, Texas, on Nov. 12, 2017, on the recommendation of Thulin. The DFW FCA wanted to honor Johnson with the Tom Landry Excellence of Character award. When asked by Thulin if he could be the keynote speaker for the annual coaches' appreciation dinner, Johnson, similar to his father, couldn't say no.
Inside the Irving Convention Center, a crowd of around 700 people watched Johnson. Rick Bowles, the North Texas multi-area director for FCA, called Johnson's presentation unique compared to previous speakers.
For 30 minutes, the audience heard Johnson narrate a slideshow of photographs.
Johnson clicked through his life's "blackberry moments." A photo of himself and his little league teammates. A photo of himself in a miniature Braves uniform, looking up to his father in his actual Braves uniform. A photo of himself pumping his left fist immediately after getting married to Cheryl.
Johnson, full of energy, encouraged the crowd to embrace the unscripted nature of God's plan for their lives.
Johnson clicked through his faith transformation. A photo of Cheryl smiling in the Romanian orphanage while holding Michael. A photo of his coin from 1997, representing his salvation in God. A photo of the compass and note Cheryl gave him to make sure he goes in the direction God desires.
Johnson, full of nostalgic emotions, encouraged the crowd to love Jesus Christ.
"The impact just floored people," Thulin said. "Everybody there had to really take a look at themselves and ask, 'Am I doing enough for my Lord?'"
As Bowles listened to Johnson, he also peered around at the crowd. No one in the audience was distracted. One woman wiped away tears. Some teenage boys, aspiring college football players, were weeping.
"The message was unbelievable," Bowles said, "It was just him sharing his heart."
Johnson clicked through his tribulations and triumphs. A photo of himself bald from the chemotherapy. A photo of a deteriorating Michael, bound to his wheelchair. A photo of him carrying his father's casket. A photo of himself and Cheryl smiling after 35 years of marriage. A photo of Eric's wedding. A photo of Maggie's wedding. A photo of his blessed family, including six children and two grandchildren.
Johnson, full of motivation, encouraged the crowd to, "Trust God ... Period."
FCA Magazine Devotional
Surrender To Serve
By Sarah Rennicke
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” — Matthews 20:28
When Ernie Johnson dedicated his life to the Lord, it turned him upside down and inside out. He soaked in the teachings and love language of Christ and gave God the go-ahead to mold his heart.
While Johnson had been a believer for years, God was calling him to something more, to greater risk and deeper boldness to profess his faith and share his story in a public setting. Johnson stepped out and began sharing his testimony, his first experience coming out of service to a friend.
Since then, Johnson has dedicated his life to serving. He serves God, then his family as husband and father, and then his sphere of influence as a television personality. He holds himself accountable to the men in his small group, but also through a humble approach of loving God and others.
Johnson’s mentality reminds us to live life through the lens of faith. We must die to self to resurrect a life in Christ.
Service is a state of heart, a bending of our own will to seek that of our Father. It’s when we come to the end of our own ability that we are sent out of our comfort zone, and we hear the voice of God nudging us to something unfamiliar. We reach out to do what we think we cannot, surrendering our fears for the sake of someone else.
“You have to put other people first,” Johnson reminds us. “This can’t be all about you.”
It was never all about us.
Jesus, the ultimate picture of servanthood, bent His immortal frame in human flesh, turning down alleyways to call out to the marginalized and forgotten. He submerged His hands in water and washed the feet of His own followers. And He hung on a cross for humanity, bearing the brunt of God’s wrath so we would have an eternal home in Heaven. His example should permeate our every thought and action as we mold our hearts in a posture of vulnerability and take up a servant-minded position like our Savior.
There is no better act of love than to lay down our lives for another. And, because God so frequently works in reverse, it’s often in our pouring out that our own spirit is finally filled.
• Where do you find yourself struggling to serve others when you don't want to?
• How can you show a teammate you care for them?
• In what ways can you ask God to guide you out of your comfort zone?
Father God, I am thankful that I have the example of Jesus to show me what it means to serve. Sometimes I am afraid to leave what I’m used to and sacrifice my time, resources and words to give when it is inconvenient for me. Show me what it is to lose myself for the sake of Your gospel. Amen.
After his speech, Ernie Johnson took a photo with Isaac Martinez, Carleton Coleman, Jake Valdez, Julian Zavala, Nick Goldsby, Brian Gonzalez, Julian Ramos and Jacques Battley, all of whom are Arlington Heights High football players.
Photos courtesy of Turner Sports, Ernie Johnson and Dallas-Fort Worth FCA.