Anthony Johnson, MA ’19 has enjoyed three careers — one as a successful NFL running back, another as a longtime NFL team chaplain, and now, with the help of the Townsend Institute at Concordia University Irvine, as a counselor with a burgeoning practice in Florida.
“God transformed me through the Townsend Institute’s counseling program,” says the 11-year pro athlete. “When somebody comes into my office, no matter the issue or diagnosis, I have the capacity now of being present with them in whatever they’re experiencing. That speaks to the counseling aspects I learned [from Concordia Irvine].”
As a mid-career professional, Johnson wasn’t eager to pivot to another assignment and go back to school — at least, not at first.
“My thought was, ‘No thanks, I already did that,’” he says. “Especially going back to school in an online situation. I thought, ‘There's no way.’” But he took the plunge with the Townsend Institute and found himself in a life-changing experience.
“It began with that first cohort,” he says. “We got in there and talked about real things, things you normally would not disclose to someone you’re just meeting. The Institute’s professors did an awesome job in our cohort modeling that process. They had been transformed by the same process and were leading us through that... You cannot lead someone to a place you haven’t gone.”
But before he was a counselor or a team chaplain, Johnson played football at the highest level.
Born in Indianapolis, Johnson grew up in South Bend. His father died when he was young. His mother remarried when he was 10 years old, and he became the second of nine children in the blended family. Johnson attended Notre Dame University on a scholarship and played running back and fullback for the Fighting Irish at a high point for the football program. He helped the team win a national championship, alongside future NFL stars Tony Rice, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and Tim Brown. “It was a fun time to be an Irishman,” says Johnson.
Though he had been brought up in a Reformed Presbyterian church and given his life to the Lord at age eight, Johnson had wandered from God and “floundered, big-time” until one particular day at training camp heading into his sophomore season.
“I’d had a decent first year and started half the games as tailback,” he says. “We were up-and-coming, but I was miserable, not only because Lou Holtz ran a tough practice, but just life. I should have been at the top of the world, but I remember walking off the practice field and literally told God, ‘I’m done. I would like you to come and get me now.’ I was ready.”
God transformed me through the Townsend Institute’s counseling program. I have the capacity now of being present...
God showed Johnson that he was living disconnected from a relationship with his heavenly Father. For Johnson, change came immediately: he began spending hours every morning reading the Bible and finding his way back to communion with God.
“It was real, without question,” he says. “When I’m convicted about something, I go all the way in.”
He began attending church again, and there he met his future wife, Shelley. They were married right before the national championship game. As a young man with a bright future, Johnson set his priorities: “It was God and now my family, and my profession. I was going to give it all I had,” he says.
Drafted in the second round by the Indianapolis Colts in 1990, Johnson “wasn’t going to mess around with this,” he says. “I wanted to be the best I could possibly be.”
He played with quarterback Jeff George, “probably the best thrower I played with, by far,” Johnson says. But overall, his years with the Colts were frustrating. “It was not the entree into the league I had hoped for,” he says. “Personally, I was struggling, hanging on by the skin of my teeth and nails. If I hadn’t been a second-round pick I would have been cut, definitely.”
NFL systems were very different from what they ran at Notre Dame. “When I got to the league, I had to learn a whole new game, and it was difficult,” Johnson says. “I struggled.”
Things started clicking by his third year, and then Johnson “learned how to run.” “I didn’t run track, so I hired an athletic development guy in my fourth year and he taught me how to run,” Johnson says.
The training made him faster, and he ran a low 4.4 in the 40-yard-dash even later in his career.
“It was rewarding to feel like I could be a thousand-yard runner and feel like I could be faster,” he says.
Perhaps the most valuable thing he brought to teams was a strong mental game.
“I always knew what I was supposed to do, and when I was supposed to do it,” he says. “That’s partly what got me into the league and definitely what kept me in the league.”
These young guys had such needs… In some cases, they didn’t realize what they were missing. They would grab hold of the pursuit of Christ and jump in.
He spent a year with the New York Jets, another with the Chicago Bears, four years with the Carolina Panthers and one with the Jacksonville Jaguars — 11 years total, an eternity for a running back.
“I got out of that time without any significant injuries. I was really blessed,” he says.
In one game in 1997, he racked up 142 yards, feeling “as good as I’ve ever felt,” he says.
The highlight of his playing career was the 1996 NFC Championship game, which the Panthers played in their inaugural season.
“We were one game away from the Super Bowl, and we got beat by the Packers in the hallowed halls of Lambeau,” he remembers. “It was a magical year, a fun year. Chemistry made it work. It was a team experience.”
The team unity he experienced with the Panthers organization helped lead to his next career as a chaplain in the NFL.
“The core of our team that year was guys who had a strong faith in Christ,” he says. “They were knitted together not just individually but with families. That was a core of that experience, and it compelled me to become a chaplain, to create and cultivate that in the individual lives of the guys.”
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From Player to Spiritual Coach
In 2000, as he waited for a call that never came from a team that wanted him to play, Johnson sought God every morning about his professional future. The Lord guided to his mind the Great Commission in Matthew 28.
“I knew he was calling me to make disciples. So I said, ‘God, I’m in.’” A few months later, the Panthers' long-time team chaplain, Mike Bunkley, invited Anthony to apprentice with him. "Mike was instrumental not only in what I experienced as a player, but in mentoring and challenging me to be a chaplain,” Johnson says.
But soon, Johnson got a call from Jack Del Rio who was looking for a chaplain for the team he’d just been hired to coach: the Jacksonville Jaguars. “Without question, I heard God’s call, so we came down here and filled that role,”
Johnson says. He and Shelley did that for 15 seasons, serving essentially as “domestic missionaries,” he says.
“Someone told me the first couple of months I was there, ‘You’re like a pastor to the organization.’ I went, oh, my gosh, I guess I am,” Johnson says. “There was an awful lot to learn in terms of the Bible, how to communicate, how to give a sermon, how to do a Bible study. All those things and more I went, oh, man, I don’t know if I can do this. I’ve got to learn.”
Then he realized he had been doing discipleship all along. “You’re a person who’s following Christ, following someone else who’s following Christ. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I’d already been doing that,” he says. “I’d gotten a picture of that from the chaplains I’d been in contact within the league, especially Mike. It was a huge relief and a great motivation because then it was like, maybe I really can do this.”
For 15 years, Johnson “brought Christ to the guys’ experience as they were playing, and looked for opportunities within the rhythm of an in-season schedule and off-season schedule, to inject Christ and the things of Christ, a Bible study message, and an encouraging sit-down and conversation.”
His ministry encompassed not just the 100 or so players, but twenty-plus coaches, front office personnel and many stadium employees. His schedule brimmed with Bible studies and chapels for players, coaches, couples, plus tons of personal interactions — including on the sidelines during games.
“These young guys had such needs,” he says. “In some cases, they didn’t realize what they were missing. They would grab hold of the pursuit of Christ and jump in, say I’m all in, and do their best to share Christ with the guy next to them.”
Maurice Williams, a right tackle and right guard with the Jaguars for nine years, met Johnson at a critical time in his life.
“As I started having all the success and money and a certain amount of fame, realizing those things didn’t complete me, the thing I was getting more passionate about was my faith,” Williams says. “I didn’t grow up in the church and didn’t have the understanding of what it looks like to be a Christian, so Anthony was a pivotal relationship for me, especially spiritually. It was really strong to have an example of a man of God and a person of integrity. He was there to answer all my questions and encourage me in my gifting as well. That’s one of his strengths — understanding people and working with them. It was one of the anchoring pieces I needed, to have the right perspective.”
Later, Johnson invited Williams to an Athletes In Action meeting where John Townsend was speaking, and Williams decided to become the chaplain for the Jaguars when Johnson went into full-time counseling.
“Anthony’s been a tremendous blessing to me as a chaplain and a brother,” says Williams, who is also the pastor of a church.
Going Deeper to Help Others
But before Johnson embarked on his counseling career, he sensed a need to acquire additional skills to help guys with real-world struggles. “They may know John 3:16 backwards and forwards, but they’re still wrestling with wounds and losses and life issues and experiences,” he says. “I found myself at a loss in some ways. It needs to be more like John 4, when Jesus talks to the woman at the well. I was doing enough walking alongside guys, but I needed more tools.”
He sought out resources, and ultimately found the Townsend Institute.
“Shelley was the catalyst for this,” he recalls. “There was an opportunity that Townsend and [Henry] Cloud provided to be part of a one-week intensive. I’d heard some things about it, so I encouraged Shelley to go.”
Shelley came back raving about the experience. Eventually, Anthony took her advice and he and Shelley met with John Townsend at an NFL owners meeting.
“He touched on things in my life that for 46 years I did not realize how much that was impacting me, like losing my dad,” Anthony says. “I went to the one-week intensive the next month and had the same thing Shelley experienced: dramatic transformation. I call it excavating some things in me.”
He enrolled in the Townsend Institute and “saw God doing things in my life in a deeper way than even that meeting with John, that I didn’t know he could do,” he says. “It was really transforming.”
Every online class gave him “some type of connection that in some way encouraged or equipped me.” It also helped him minister to pro players experiencing injuries, cut days and other adverse life events.
“I loved being a salve to whatever degree I could when guys were cleaning out their lockers and walking out the door,” Johnson says. “Getting injuries is really difficult, particularly career-ending or season-ending injuries. I learned [in the Townsend Institute program] that it’s just being present even if you don’t have a word to say.”
Johnson soon felt called to go into full-time counseling. After graduating from the Townsend Institute in 2019, he opened up Acacia Counseling in early 2020 to provide individual, couple, and group counseling services. Today, he and Shelley have five children and six grandchildren — and Anthony is embarking on his third career.
“I’m so enjoying seeing people change,” he says. “I hope they are being changed to the depth of transformation like I experienced. It’s about bringing the life of Christ to them.”