Inspiration is like art…it’s beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
And for Johnnie Abney, there are few things more beautiful than the logo of the New England Patriots…because to him, it represents a hope that he had never known.
…Not because it’s all that artistic, but because of what it stands for and because of the will and attitude of the men who wear it like a badge of honor on their helmets – particularly one Tom Brady.
The rise to stardom of Tom Brady is akin to the rise of the Phoenix, the firey bird from Greek mythology that rises from the ashes of it’s predecessor – and perhaps Brady’s ascension to the starting quarterback position for New England in September of 2001 is doubly inspirational given the time in our nation’s history.
In the aftermath of the tragic demise of the World Trade Center due to the cowardly actions of Al Quada terrorists, football took the following week off – setting the stage for one of the most inspirational moments in sports history, and perhaps the most inspirational success stories as well.
Football went on. The world watched with goosebumps and many tears as Joe Andruzzi sprinted out of the tunnel bearing the American flag, sending a message to the scum who masterminded the highjackings of those passenger planes that rammed into the twin towers and the Pentagon that America goes on – that all they did was to strengthen our resolve and to not be intimidated by terrorist tactics…and that our lives would go on as they normally would, giving no credence to their black hearted actions.
Yes, football went on, but Patriots’ Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Bledsoe did not. With 5:11 left in the game and the Patriots trailing by 7, Bledsoe scrambled around right end and headed for the sideline – but before he could get there he was absolutely crushed by New York Jets’ linebacker Mo Lewis…
…and the rest, as they say, is history.
Brady came on for the seriously injured Bledsoe and began a magical run that was as improbable as it was inspirational – particularly for Abney, someone who was desperate for someone to show him the way out of a drug addiction that ruled his life – a role model who rose from the ashes of his predecessor and succeeded against long odds.
Many people joined the New England Patriots bandwagon during that period, for as many different reasons as there were fans, but many were just riding the wave of the intense, short burst of patriotism and slowly slipped back into whatever paths their lives were taking before the brief detour…
…but some like Abney rode the wave to where the tide broke, ending up on the beach of healing and redemption – and he credits the example of Brady taking the reigns of the Patriots and leading them to the world title for helping to give him the strength to break the cycle of addiction.
Of course, it was all Abney. Only the person who’s dealing with the addiction can reverse the cycle, but they tend to cling to hope in one form or another, and Abney’s hope was in Brady.
“All I can truly say from the bottom of my heart is that my one thing I want to accomplish is to shake Tom Brady’s hand and thank him for inspiring me” Abney said to me recently from his Kentucky home, explaining that his tattoos are a daily reminder of where his priorities lie, and to whom he pays homage.
And not just the tattoos, but his house, his car, his work place…all adorned with the badge of honor so that he is rarely without his pillar to lean on.
This past summer, he made the trip to Foxboro for training camp in his car that he calls “The Patmobile”, adorned, like his body, with the badge of honor – hoping to meet his inspiration, but having to settle for just basking in his own personal Graceland.
” (that) was my first to go to Foxboro.” he recalled, “I met some friends in New Hampshire we went to camp every day but the the first time we pulled in the parking lot at Gillette stadium – I ain’t going to lie – I cried like a little boy.”
Some wouldn’t understand. Hell, most of us wouldn’t understand – to witness something bigger than ourselves, the hours and days and years of sweat and sacrifice for that one goal, all encompassed in the house that Brady built…things like that can be overwhelming.
“Walking up to the stadium I felt goose bumps and I knew that I finally arrived at my real home.”
Home is where the heart is, and though he is physically in Kentucky where the football gods made most of the people Colts and Bengals fans, his heart is connected to Foxboro like some sort of preternatural astral cord…and as long as the Patriots Way represents hope, that’s where his heart will remain, and Brady is the personification of that hope.
“My life kinda went like Brady’s did, things kept happening that were just strange, but taking advantage of my opportunities like Brady did changed my life.” Abney continued, “he showed me I could achieve my goals if I work hard and believe in myself.”
Brady inspired many people with his story, but only an appreciative few have adorned their lives – and bodies – with the walking and breathing thank you note.