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Former NFL pro Tim Johnson is now using stadiums for his ministry

Event in Orlando aims to serve 30,000 people who are homeless or in need

Think about the last time you were in a stadium. Was it to cheer on your favorite squad? Maybe you celebrated a sweet victory or endured a painful defeat. Was it to bear the best that freezing cold winter had to offer or to second-guess why you didn’t watch the game from home? Maybe you lost your voice singing at the best concert you have ever witnessed. Or witnessed a Jumbotron proposal go incredibly right or terribly wrong.

A stadium can be more than just a venue. It’s a place that creates memories, creates community and for Tim Johnson, 52, a place that made all the difference in his life.

Living with four siblings and a loving mother did not negate the fact that Johnson’s life was plagued by fatherlessness. Growing up, he often found himself uncertain of his place and purpose in life.

“Learning how to make decisions that would really be beneficial to me was really kind of a trial and error and an experiment thing based on the information I got from watching other kids, watching coaches, watching other kids’ dads,” Johnson told The Undefeated. “Not having a father, not ever knowing or seeing a picture of my father, I tried to supplement in my own way.”

Like most adolescents, making mistakes was inevitable, but his “image crisis” led him to want to figure out his greater purpose and desperately answer the lingering question: Who am I?

“I made a lot of mistakes. … being into sports was another supplement,” Johnson said. “I could run away from that question by finding my identity on a team and with my friends.”

Football seemed to be his out. And it led him to a full scholarship to Penn State University. However, the questions, who am I? and where am I going? remained unanswered until he was “confronted with the truth.”

“I came to faith in Christ when I was in college. … I knew I had finally settled on the reason why I was put on this planet. And that it was to fulfill God’s purpose and not my own. And so it gave me a whole different meaning.”

A national collegiate championship, All-American and Sports Illustrated All-Pro honors, a Super Bowl ring after the 1991 season and a 10-year NFL career as a defensive lineman with the Cincinnati Bengals, Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers wasn’t enough. Johnson found himself wanting to use his platform to seek change we so desperately need in society.

“I’ve seen a trail of people’s lives transformed through my NFL career,” Johnson said. “I wanted to go to law school because I felt like cities were being wrecked by injustice.

“It just seemed like it was being stacked against certain underserved communities and I wanted to bring my faith into the justice system to see restoration take place in people’s lives.”

Defensive tackle Tim Johnson #78 of the Washington Redskins stretches prior to playing against the Los Angeles Rams at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on Novemtber 21, 1993.

Defensive tackle Tim Johnson #78 of the Washington Redskins stretches prior to playing against the Los Angeles Rams at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on Novemtber 21, 1993.

Joseph Patronite/Getty Images

But instead of law school, Johnson decided in 2000 to go into the ministry full time. And for him, preaching the Gospel has moved beyond the pulpit and into communities that have been neglected. For 11 weeks in 2013, for instance, Johnson walked across his home state of Florida. From Pensacola to South Beach, he prayed for mayors, city council members, police chiefs and schools of every city and town he walked through.

“I feel like God wants to use me in a way that maybe not makes sense to the world, but makes sense in his bigger plan,” Johnson said.

“It wasn’t my bright idea because I had already put a lot of miles on my legs and my body playing all those years of football from being 10 years old to what 30, 31 retiring from the NFL. So it wasn’t like I needed something to do. My life was full. I had plenty to do. But I felt a true divine impression that God called me to walk across this state and make a statement of our need and dependence on him.”

He didn’t stop there.

The Orlando, Florida, resident answered another call to bring hope to his city.

America is more divided than it’s been in years. … Ethnic division is at a high,” Johnson said. “Americans are great at reacting to crisis, but we’re not very good at being proactive to meet the needs before the crisis comes.

“Why would I wait for some catalytic crisis to be set off to address that?”

On Easter Sunday last year, Johnson along with the Orlando Serve Foundation held the first annual He Got Up event. Held at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, it celebrated and served the homeless, families and individuals who are in need while promoting unity within the community.

“I feel like our best chance to demonstrate hope was not just talking about it. It’s actually having a plan to show it to those who need it the most. So we had an Easter service and instead of just wanting people to come to our churches,” Johnson said,“I felt like we needed to actually go to the people and get them.”

One hundred buses drove more than 4,000 miles on Easter morning to places where people are most vulnerable, seeking those who live in the woods, hotels and shelters.

With the help of 2,000 volunteers, more than 4,000 haircuts were given, 5,000 medical referrals made, 300 guests provided with job opportunities, more than 500 legal referrals were made, along with free food and clothing distributed. They were able to help more than 10,000 individuals.

Johnson is gearing up to do it again on April 9. Although Johnson hopes to serve more than 30,000 people in need this year, his ultimate goal is to one day not have to do this at all.

“The reason I say the goal is to not do this, if we actually work together, there will be enough people equipped and empowered to actually be self-sustained that we won’t need to do it,” Johnson said. “Then they become a part of the restoration process and help others that are in need.”

A stadium was a place that led to Johnson’s life being forever changed. And now in that stadium, he is able to see lives changed, a divided community mend while bringing hope, restoration and healing to an entire city.

“We’re at very critical time in America. We have to decide whether we want to start coming together or not. If we don’t come together, we’re going to continue to come apart. And wanting someone else to do it, those days are over. … I’m believing that if we came together, we can change the way we see life in our communities.”

Liner Notes

To volunteer, become a sponsor or donate to He Got Up visit HeGotUp.org.

Kayla Johnson is an associate editor for the ESPN social brand. She is an avid Kobe fan and may consider retirement if given the chance to interview him one day.