I first found out about Johnson last week when I asked Steelers CB Kevin Fogg during an interview who had made the biggest impression on him within the Steelers organization. I was ready to transcribe a familiar name like James Harrison, Cameron Heyward, or even Mike Tomlin. Instead, I found myself saying, "Wait. Who??" The person who has made the biggest impact on Fogg so far is Chad Johnson, team chaplain.
Johnson's journey to the NFL involved a chance encounter between a utility worker and a coach of the Arizona Cardinals. The two met when Johnson's friend went to turn on Green's water. Both men were chatty, and eventually, Green asked the friend if he knew anyone who could minister to athletes and provide guidance for the team. Johnson loved God and sports, and had done some ministry work in the PAC 10 (now PAC 12). His name was dropped. And, with that, Chad Johnson became the chaplain of the Arizona Cardinals.
Johnson served with the Cardinals organization for nine years until a change in leadership in 2011 meant the end of his time there. Coach Mike Tomlin heard he was free and thought the man who had served as chaplain at Steelers West would be a good fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. "I felt like it was something I was meant to do," Johnson told me.
Now entering his fourth season with the Steelers and his 13th in the NFL, Johnson has spent most of his adult life ministering to professional athletes. He provides all pastoral services for the team and their families. These services include one-on-one meetings with players, Bible studies, pre-game and post-game prayer, morning devotions, and fellowship meetings with families. "Anything as it relates to their personal life," he explained. "We are doing life together. I am walking with them." He added, "I don't want anyone to feel excluded. I meet people where they are at."
One of the biggest struggles for new players is adjusting to the pressures of the NFL. "When they get here, oftentimes it is a huge shock. It is a lot more difficult and a lot more business-oriented than they expect. They can end up feeling like they are a number after they've worked their whole lives for this," he explained.
The lifestyle also isn't what young players expect. "It is a shock. you see the flash and the Ferraris growing up, and then you realize you have to pay a lot of people. It's not as much money as they think, and it is a lot more work than they can ever be prepared for. Not just physically. There is no realistic way to prepare them," he shared.
That's where Johnson comes in. "I'm right there to meet them when the weight hits them. I've seen a lot of guys fold under pressure, and a lot of the guys rise to the occasion. It brings out the best and the worst in the guys and those around them," he said.
Fogg has appreciated Johnson's guidance through his own transition into the NFL. "Pastor Chad not only talks about the goodness of God, but he lives it out. The example he sets is a great one to follow, especially in the business-like atmosphere of the NFL."
Some players struggle with their new-found fame. Johnson is there to help with that as well. "I try to help the guys see the blessing and the opportunity," he said. "It is more than just the stats. Players have been elevated to a place of great influence in life. It's not just money, position, and physical health, they also need to be good stewards of their influence. I try to model for them what I try to teach them. You can use your influence for greater gain."
Johnson emphasizes the whole man. He explained his message to players, "You are more than a football player, and it is time to start thinking about yourself as a total man." He views his role as a mentor for life, not just a spiritual adviser to athletes. "The most successful cases it is a good foundational launching pad for them to be set on the course for an amazing journey of life. It can be a real turning point for a lot of guys."
This off-field work also benefits the team on the field. Johnson said, "My line of thinking is that if they are more of a whole person they will play better. We have to win ball games because that is what it is all about." To this end, Johnson has a very practical tool in his toolbox. He develops Personal Action Plans for players based on their goals to provide a framework for their development. Johnson checks in weekly with each player who has an action plan.
Just as Johnson is there to help players transition into the NFL, he is also there to help players who may be on their way out. "It is incredibly important that you find who you are as a man. A pitfall or mistake can either turn into something that can be a springboard for health and growth or it can send you into a tailspin." Johnson's work and message that there is more to life than football can help players make a smooth transition out of the NFL. "It is taboo to think about or prepare for life after football. They feel like they are having an affair on football. I think it is wise to have a grasp on the reality of it," he shared. "A lot of players reach out during times of injury and trial."
Winning is important and the NFL is a business, but the Steelers have values beyond that. "It is part of the Steelers' core values. Coach Tomlin is such a phenomenal person beyond football and such a caring man. He is about the business in raising young men. That is the rarity in him. He really cares about these guys beyond football and they can feel that." Johnson said. Johnson's work is an extension of the Steelers mission.
"We care about people. It is not just a mantra or slogan or idea in theory," he said. "This is a service-oriented organization."
Johnson also serves urban youth and families through Elevate International.
To connect with him, you can find him on social media: