Anthony Johnson Leading the Pro Bowl of the Spirit


On the morning of January 29, 2012, NFL super stars from around the league did before the game what would normally be considered unthinkable. Opposing teams, in this case the AFC and the NFC, filed into a room together for the game day chapel. What is usually a sacred time for each team to connect with each other and their God, while preparing to annihilate their opponent, had now become a hallowed time for both teams and their families to come together to worship and hear a message from God’s word.

But what type of message does one give to such a group and who would be bold enough and respected enough to give it?

In walks Anthony Johnson – humble in heart, yet confident in his stride.  His nine years of service as chaplain for the Jacksonville Jaguars is clearly enough to garner the respect of those gathered.  His experience as a retired NFL Player further solidifies his credibility as the Pro Bowl Chapel Speaker.

In 1990, Johnson was drafted in the 2nd round out of the University of Notre Dame.  As a running back, he had an 11-year career in the NFL, where he earned NFL Player of the Week honors and was named Pro Bowl alternate behind the great Emmitt Smith.

After retiring from the NFL, Johnson spent two years asking God what he wanted him to do.  After 5 months of deeply pursuing God’s will for his life, Anthony says, “At 5:00 in the morning…He finally led me to Matthew 28, which I had seen before.  But this time it was as if (God) was saying, ‘Anthony this isn’t just a general call I’m putting on my church as a whole. This is what I want you to do.’ I heard him and I was willing. I said, ‘Okay, God, just show me where it is you want me to do that.’ ”

About 6 months later, Johnson was at one of his regular meetings with Mike Bunkley, the chaplain of the Carolina Panthers.  Bunkley asked Johnson to consider joining Athletes in Action’s staff and building into the lives of pro players and their wives. To Johnson, that made a whole lot of sense.  His response to the call was, “Okay, God, I’ll give it a shot.”

Johnson has served on staff with Athletes in Action for the past nine years with Shelley, his bride of 23 years.  Assigned to the Jaguars, they have dedicated themselves to building into the lives of players and their wives, in an environment they know all too well.

A typical week for Johnson includes players’ and couples’ Bible studies, one-on-one appointments and the preparation that goes along with them.  Having a consistent presence at the training facility is also important, as he builds trusting relationships and makes himself available to the team.  On Saturday afternoon, you will find Johnson prepping for the evening chapel or jumping on the plane for a road trip.  He is also there to offer support for the Jags on game day. “On the field, I look for opportunities to encourage the guys as they’re playing…and take note of what they may be going through, emotionally, from their play,” Johnson reveals.

Equally as important is the role his wife, Shelley, plays as chaplain for the Jaguars wives. In addition to supporting her husband’s call to ministry, caring for their five children and spoiling their seven-week old granddaughter, Shelley has an integral part in the ministry as well. She has Wednesday morning Bible studies, one-on-one appointments throughout the week, and she works alongside her husband leading the team’s couples study. When asked about the most rewarding part of her ministry, Shelley says, “Living life with them and walking with them through their careers at the Jags is the best part.” Shelley’s own NFL experience provides a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that she readily makes available to the Jaguar wives.

On call 24-7, Anthony and Shelly Johnson selflessly pour into the lives of players and their families.  The support and encouragement they bring makes them a valuable asset to the Jaguar organization.

So what message did Anthony Johnson bring to these Pro Bowlers on the day of the big game?

It was definitely not a “Rah, Rah! Go! Fight! Win!” type of deal. Taking seriously his mission to have a spiritual impact on the lives of these players, he was sure to communicate a challenge with eternal implications. The foundation of Johnson’s message was Luke 13:30, “And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.” This verse is Jesus’ description of how the kingdom of God will be. Anthony says he chose this topic because, “I wanted to help them see the difference between being first in God’s eyes and being first in the world’s eyes.”

There is a saying in athletics: “You’re only as good as your last game.” It’s an ideal example of what it means to be first in the world’s eyes. Who better to know this than these Pro Bowl players, who have seen firsthand how quickly a stadium full of fans can go from cheering their team while they’re on top, to rejecting them with a string of “Boos” when they don’t live up to their expectation. With God, this is not the case.  His measurement of greatness has nothing to do with the accomplishments of the body or a “W” in the stats; but with the character and motive of the heart.

What about You?

Are you striving to be first in the eyes of a fickle world and finding that you can’t keep up with the demands? Have you discovered that the applause brings you a temporary feeling of significance, but has no lasting satisfaction? Athlete or not, we all have our “Pro Bowls” in life; those accomplishments that we’ve worked very hard to achieve. There’s nothing wrong with those achievements. They should be celebrated, by all means! But when we are only consumed with being first in the world’s eyes, disappointment is sure to follow.  When our goal is to be pleasing in the eyes of God, in addition to success we will find joy, inner peace and lasting fulfillment; A good reason to keep our “Pro Bowls” in perspective.

Is there a particular pro athlete you’d like me to interview about his faith or a specific question you would like me to include? How has this story impacted you? To submit your suggestions and comments, you can contact me through I’d love to hear from you!

You can also connect with me on,, or follow me at

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.