When TNT Sports’ Ernie Johnson pulled up to work Thursday, he was greeted by a surprising, familiar face: comedian and friend Jeff Foxworthy. Foxworthy gave Johnson a plaque celebrating his 30-year anniversary working for Turner Sports, and then led Johnson to a surprise celebration featuring the University of Georgia marching band, a crowd of friends and colleagues that included his wife, and speeches from his “Inside the NBA” co-stars, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith.
“This is crazy,” Johnson said at the end of the celebration. “All the nice things you guys have said, you’ve got no idea how that rests right here (touching his heart). I’ve had 30 years of driving here because I get to, and that is such a blessing. I love this place, I love this company and the people who make it up. So thank you for this; it’s totally unnecessary, but so appreciated. Here’s to countless blackberry moments down the road. Love you all. Thank you.”
Jeff Foxworthy and the Turner family surprised Ernie at work to celebrate his 30 years at NBA on TNT! 🎉 pic.twitter.com/l9IyaKxnDN
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) November 22, 2019
“Blackberry moments” refer to a story Johnson told in a 2017 University of Georgia commencement speech about a baseball game he played in as a kid. Mid-game, two outfielders went to retrieve a ball that had cleared the fences, and then disappeared. When the other players and parents went to look for them, they found the two boys eating blackberries from bushes they had discovered. Johnson said that life is filled with “blackberry moments” — opportunities to pause from busyness and appreciate the small blessings of everyday life. In honor of this story, Turner Sports planted three blackberry bushes outside his office.
For Johnson, just the opportunity to continue in his job is a blessing. Johnson did not contribute to Turner’s MLB postseason coverage last year after blood clots were revealed in both legs during a check-up, and Johnson was advised not to fly. That health battle came after he fought cancer (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) from 2003-06.
Also a husband and father of six children, four of which are adopted, Johnson has taken on the motto “Trust God, period.” The phrase stems from finding strength in his personal battles as well as those of his son, Michael, who was born with a progressive form of muscular dystrophy and lives on a ventilator in his parents’ home.
Yet, it took years for Johnson to grow to a place where he knew God.
“I was enjoying a degree of success early in my career,” Johnson told the Sports Spectrum Podcast in May 2017. “I had graduated, gotten a job, gotten a bigger job, gotten married, and if I’m totally honest was thinking, ‘God has nothing to do with this. I haven’t paid attention to Him and I’m doing well, so let’s just keep this going.’”
At this point, Johnson and his wife, Cheryl, had two biological and two adopted children, and realized they wanted their kids to have some sort of religious upbringing. They started attending Crossroads Community Church outside Atlanta, and during his first service there, Johnson was leveled by the preaching of Pastor Kevin Myers.
“The first week [Myers] was asking ‘Who is provider in your life?’ and I thought ‘I’m the provider!’” Johnson remembered. “I was wrong. As I learned more about faith, I started taking a broader look at life. I was in the middle of an identity crisis. I would have said my identity was as a husband and a father, but that didn’t match reality. In reality, I was defining myself by my career. I was a sportscaster. I was driven by my job. I was achieving all these things and wondering, ‘Is this all there is? Is my plan all there is?’ If so, that’s not very satisfying.”
In the years since, Johnson has devoted his life to following Jesus, and has been vocal about his faith both on-air and in how he talks about his heart for adoption.
“Adoption means giving someone second chance,” Johnson said on the podcast. “We adopted our first child from Romania. Cheryl went over there and when our adopted son Michael was brought out from the orphanage and handed to Cheryl, the worker said, ‘Don’t take this boy, he’s no good.’ He couldn’t walk because of a foot that was turned in. He couldn’t speak.
“Cheryl called me later that day and said, ‘I met this little boy and he is so much more than we can handle, but I don’t know if I can go the rest of life wondering what happened to him.’ So I said, ‘Well, bring him home.’ And you know, that’s what God said to me when I was a 41-year-old man just starting to consider faith. ‘Bring him home.’ We’re all adopted.”
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