National sports TV host Ernie Johnson Jr. shares his story of finding faith in Jesus Christ and navigating the challenges of putting that newfound faith on public display. He also talks about trusting God with his career and leaning on Him through a cancer diagnosis.
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Mr. Ernie Johnson Jr.: And I said, “It’s worse than we thought. It’s cancer.”I don’t wish that moment on anybody, because it’s as real as it gets and as tough as it gets.
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John Fuller: Ernie Johnson Jr., talking about a punch to the gut when he learned about his cancer diagnosis and that’s just one of the challenges that he and his wife, Cheryl, have courageously faced together. Now stay tuned to find out how their Christian faith has guided them, as we present another episode of “Focus on the Family” with your host, Focus on the Family president, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, Ernie Johnson was with us on “Focus on the Family” not long ago and we really enjoyed hearing about how he met Cheryl and about the adoption of their son, Michael, who has special needs. If you didn’t hear it, you really need to get the CD or the download from us, ‘cause it was inspirational in every way.
John: Yeah, we had a lot of great listener response to that and we do have the CD or download and Ernie’s book, Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments that Make Life Extraordinary. All of that at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Today we’re glad to share another part of Ernie and Cheryl’s inspiring story and that is how they came to Christ. It’s a wonderful testimony. Ernie is the host, of course, of TNT’s “Inside the NBA.” He’s won three Emmy awards for his outstanding work in sports television and he’s a devoted husband and father of six children, four of them adopted.
John: And we began with a reference to the adoptions, as Ernie described his journey of faith, a pivotal time in his life at age 41. Here is Ernie Johnson on “Focus on the Family.”
Jim: So let’s go back to that 41-year-old Ernie Johnson Jr. and what was going on in your life, because these things happened, faith-wise, this happened I think after Michael, correct?
Ernie: Yeah, it happened after Michael, happened after Carmen.
Jim: So as the listeners are processing that, you and Cheryl’s decision to adopt a special-needs child, that’s all without knowing the Lord in a direct way.
Ernie: Yeah, and you know what it taught me? That even when I’m not giving God a second thought, I’m right in the crosshairs.
Ernie: And even though I don’t know why I’m saying, “Just bring him home,” He knows why I’m saying, “Just bring him home.”
Jim: He knows why.
Ernie: He put the words there.
Jim: So what happened at 41? Who got around you? I meet so many people that don’t know the Lord in their 40s, in their 50s. What was it that people said to you or what happened that opened your heart up to say, “Okay, maybe they’re right?”
Ernie: I think it was a couple of things. I think one was an identity crisis. My identity was tied to what I was doing; the fact that I was on TV, and I had this job, and you know, I think that became who I am. It wasn’t, “Hey, aren’t you Eric and Maggie’s father and Cheryl’s husband?” “No. I’m a sportscaster on TBS/TNT.” And I think there had been an accumulation of moments in my career that had kind of pointed the fact that I was thinking way too much about the importance of my job. The way I treated people that I worked with was certainly not something that my dad would have condoned, and that was a part of my career.
Jim: And that was pinging around in your own heart, your own mind about your dad?
Ernie: I wore out a producer once, when I was at Channel 2. A woman was producing the weekend newscast, and I normally have like seven minutes to do all the stuff that’s happening on the weekend and she mistimed the show, and I sat down to do my chunk of Georgia highlights and Georgia Tech highlights of football and then I’ve got this and this and this and boy, I’ve got a full show. And she said, “I mistimed it. You’ve got 2 1/2.” And that’s just before I go on, so I can’t really do anything but try to fit in whatever I can. And when the show was over, I took my mic off and I went in the control room in front of about 15 people, and she stood up and said, “I am so sorry. It was just that I was …” And I was nose-to-nose with her with her back against the wall, and let her have it with the combinations that made sailors blush. And back then it wasn’t uncommon for me. I would, shoot, I was [prideful].
Ernie: Yeah. And it was, you know, it was like, I don’t care what kind of language I use, if it gets my point across. So I wore her out, and I was proud of myself. I walked out. I turned on my heel and walked out of that room, closed the door, went up to my office. Well, I let her know. That’ll be the last time she messes with my show. And there were a couple of other ones along the way, where I just got too full of myself. And so, kind of those combinations of things, and just kind of wondering, if, okay, this is all, if this is who I am, is this it? So all this energy I’m putting into being this sportscaster, this is it?
And Cheryl and I, you know, here we have these two kids. It’s 1997, and we’ve got four kids now. You know, we’ve got the two adopted and two biological, big family of four—family of six, including us. And Cheryl had said, “You know maybe we should find a church to, you know, maybe the kids needs like some spiritual grounding.” Because the kids they’re hanging out with are always saying, “Hey, how come you don’t go to Sunday school? How come you don’t go to church? How come you’ve got Sundays off? What’s your secret?”
And so, well, my dad’s been taking Sundays off since he went to college, you know, because I grew up. You know, I was an altar boy in the Catholic church, but I could say the Mass back and forth, and then when I go to Georgia, then it’s like, wow, Sunday morning is for getting rid of Saturday night. What a great thing!
So, we go to this nondenominational church called Crossroads, and the first Sunday we’re there and the thing that’s funny, we’re saying, “But who’s gonna watch Michael, because he’s a special-needs kid?” And the woman who heads up the childcare has done special-needs kids a lot, so this is a good fit. So Eric and Maggie will go to one part of the thing for a kids’ service, and this other woman will watch Michael, and Carmen’s, you know, she’s floating around in the little kids’ area.
And so, we sit down and this experience, you know, boom, the service starts and you know, I look up, and there’s like 115 people [there]; here are a couple of guys playing guitar; somebody’s on drums. Somebody’s got keyboard, and it’s like, well, this isn’t like church that I’ve ever been to. And now these people are clapping, and now the words are on the screen, and I’m like, “Do I like this? Do I not like this? Should I bolt? What am I doing?” And then, Kevin Myers is the pastor, and he looks like he’s about my age, and he starts talking about his kids, and say, “His family’s just kind of like mine.”
And then he’s diving into the Bible, and I’m cracking one for the first time in ages, and then he asks a couple of questions these first two Sundays we’re there, and he says, “So who’s the provider in your life?” And, “What are you really looking for, happiness or wholeness?” That’s easy. I’m the provider, and I’m looking to be happy. Next question. And then I’m, as he speaks, I’m, you know, wow, I do have it wrong. I never thought about being whole. I thought about being happy. Never thought about somebody besides myself being the provider; it’s all on me.
And so, then we keep going for the next couple of weeks, and suddenly I’m like, when I’m at home, I’m kind of like, I’m gonna go back to that thing he was talking about in the Bible last week. I want to go back to that verse and see what’s up. And then after a Sunday, I cornered him after the service, and I said, “Kevin, God’s messing with me.” I said, “We came here for the kids, and it’s like, when you speak, it’s like the place is cleared out and it’s just me and you.” And I said, “I’m being convicted on all kind of levels here.”
And he said, “Well, let’s have lunch.” And we go out and have lunch at this place called Oh Charlies in Lawrenceville, Georgia, on a Wednesday, December 10, 1997, and I just told him,I said, “I’m having these feelings I’ve never had before in my life, and I’m feeling this conviction, and I feel like I’m finally kind of seeing where my life should be going, and it’s not the direction that I chose.” I said, “It just seems that there’s more to it than I’m giving it.” And he said, “You’re a prayer away.”
Jim: And it’s beautiful, and I’m sure Cheryl, you came home and shared that with her.
Ernie: Yeah, and Cheryl was excited. She was, “I’m happy for you.” And then she said, “But you know I’m not there yet,” ‘cause we were both in that kind of the same boat.
Jim: In that spot.
Jim: How long did it take for her to kind of [come around]?
Ernie: Well that’s the thing, she, Cheryl is a lot more analytical than I am. I know, hard--
Jim: She’s a banker.
Ernie: --to believe as you sit across from me. But no, you mean there’s a guy in the world more analytical than you? Yes, several. But she’s a lot more analytical and wants a lot more proof.
Jim: More data.
Ernie: More data and it’s like, “Well, I still struggle with this. And until I can believe all of this, I’m not in.” And so, we went through, you know, can I be totally honest with you?
Ernie: It got messy around our house.
Jim: It usually does at that point.
Ernie: It got messy, because I’m kind of, I’m trying to change the way I do my life, and I know it’s not all about me doing it, it’s the Spirit doing it. It’s like once you’ve made this decision and you’re turning to the Holy Spirit for guidance, that it’s not about, “I did this, I did this, I did this,” but I’m saying, look, clean up your language, all right? Way too many F-bombs in your dialogue? What do you want to be soaking in? I’m gonna get in this Bible study and I want to join some other men who have been through this and can help me through this. Good. What are you listening to?
So suddenly some of the music in the church I’m finding is available at the Family Christian Store, so I’m in here and I’m leafing through the Steven Curtis Chapman CDs and Caedmon’s Call, and I’m like, okay, this is good; this is good. And at the same time I’m saying, “I hope nobody sees me in here.”
Jim: Oh, interesting.
Ernie: I’m just being as totally honest as I can be, ‘cause I said somebody’s going to see me in here. They’re going to say, “What the heck are you doing in here?” And they’re gonna ask me something biblical and I’m gonna run screaming out of the store. And so, here I’m buying this music; bought a little fish for the back of the car. And here’s the deal. I buy the fish, and then I’m in the parking lot at the mall, holding this fish, and I haven’t taken the little strip off the back yet.
Ernie: And I’m saying, Are you really gonna do this to your car? Are you really going to be ID’d this way? Are you really? N, boom, I stuck it on there. Good, there we go.
Jim: I love it.
Ernie: And so, that was kind of how that all developed. And then, as Cheryl and I worked through it with Kevin, Kevin Myers, the pastor, who’d be at our house and he walked us through the Bible, Genesis to Revelation, and then we both began to view this as, this isn’t this outdated, irrelevant Book. This is a love letter from God to His kids. And we really worked through it, and through the messiness, you know?
There was a time she said to me one night, she said, “I’m struggling. Are you really the guy I married 15 years ago?” And that hurt, but it was just one of those things, where I was like, let’s just keep working. And in March of ‘98, March 25th, and Cheryl surrendered her life. And you know what? And what resonated with her was the fact that one day as we deal with this whole Michael thing, he’ll be whole and we’ll be together, and so, we’re banking on eternal life.
Jim: That’s a wonderful promise. I mean I love to think about that as well.
Ernie: It is.
Jim: And you’ve had all this happen in your life, and then you get hit with cancer. We didn’t cover that. I think that’s the last thing, because if you think about the boulders that come your direction, if, all the way back to the nice little wrapped-up family and Christmas present and a great career, a great wife, two great kids. You adopt Michael. Okay, bit of a challenge, we can handle it. I would suggest, Ernie, I mean, your heart was already tender. For you and Cheryl to do that, there was something there that the Lord saw.
Ernie: And I’m so glad you went there, because that’s one of the things that Pastor Kevin, PK, Kevin Myers, when we were having these discussions leading up to March of ‘98, he was like, “Guys, let’s not get all wrapped up in labels.”
Ernie: He said, “Your lives are reflecting Jesus Christ more than a lot of folks who have proclaimed Him as their Savior all of their lives.” And he pointed out, he even said, “Cheryl, why do you think it was that when they brought that blond-haired boy out in Romania that you said, ‘This is the guy’? Ernie, why do you think you said, ‘Bring him home’? So, it wasn’t because you guys have anything.” He said, “God had His eyes on you long before you guys were paying attention to Him.
Jim: So true.
Ernie: And that was true and then again, as we see all these stories play out, it’s like, look, if you guys hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t see this. And I think, you know, the lessons that Michael’s taught us through the years, The biggest of those was, there is value in everybody. There is value in every one of God’s creatures. Every one of God’s kids, there is value. Even though it’s not visible the way some people might say, “That kid can’t jump. What’s he doin’ on a basketball team?” Oh, you’ll see.
And I think that’s been the thing that my kids have learned the most and that they have treasured the most is that no, there is value.
Jim: God’s character is everywhere if you’re looking. So you get a diagnosis of cancer. What was happening, and how did that valley turn into a mountaintop? ‘Cause many people are living there, Ernie. They are hearing your voice right now and they’re in a valley. It may be cancer; it may be something else. How did you manage that as a fairly new believer, right? It was a few years later.
Ernie: It was probably six years in.
Jim: Yeah, so, I mean, are you asking yourself, “God, here I commit my life to you, I’ve done all these things.
Ernie: That’s a mild way of putting it.
Jim: And now you’re hitting me with cancer?”
Ernie: Yeah, I wanted to punch Him in the nose.
Jim: That’s a fair feeling.
Ernie: I did. And you’re exactly right; I was like, God, what else do You want? Adopted two kids, trying to turn my life around, and so, I mean, it was on August 21 of 2003, which is our wedding anniversary, 21 years, and I had been ignoring or trying to put out of my mind the fact that I had this little bump next to my ear that I would see when I would shave. It would go away when I was just looking like this, but you know how when you shave and screw your face around and try to get a close shave. And this thing would kind of rise up. And so, I just kind of put it out of my mind. I’d been doing that for six months, like it will go away. It’s just natural, which is a totally wrong approach.
So, I finally had it checked out, and a doctor, an ENT, said it’s probably a benign parotid tumor, so it means a tumor near your salivary gland. You know, but, I loved the word “benign” when he told me that.
Ernie: And then he said, “If you want a second opinion, I can set something up for you.” And he did, and so on that August 21st, my wife’s at work, I’m down at Emory University Medical Center, you know, the Winship Cancer Institute, and they were putting a needle into the side of my face, into this bump that, you know, appears, and they said, “Can we do that again?” And this was the pathologist, Melinda Lewis. She said, “I wasn’t wild about what I saw that first pass, so let me just do it again.” I said fine. It didn’t hurt much.
They stuck the needle in again and came back and said, “This is not good. This, you know, it’s filled with lymphocytes,” the way she put it. I’m like, “What are lymphocytes?” And it’s like, you know, these cells that cancer develops from. And you know, and she said, “In all my years of experience, this looks to me like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.” We had about a 20-minute talk, and she said, “We won’t know for sure until we run this one more test on this, and we’ll get back to you tomorrow.”
And so, I drive back home from Emory, an hour’s drive back to my house, and Cheryl is working. She’s got an event to be at that night. She finally gets home a little after 10:00 and I’m kind of sleeping on the sofa. “How’d the doctor go today?” “Oh, they just stuck a needle in there, and we’ll have the results tomorrow, but let’s go to bed.” And I’m still hoping. Man, just be wrong on this. Maybe the phone call tomorrow will be, “Hey, everything’s okay.”
The phone call, the phone rings at dinnertime. I get up from the table, excuse myself, go a couple of rooms down, get on my phone. It’s the doctor I had first seen who had, I mean, the first Emory doctor I had seen who had sent me to Dr. Lewis to stick the needle in. He said, “It is what we thought it was. It’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It’s cancer. But it’s very treatable.”
Jim: It took the wind out of you.
Ernie: I mean it, yeah, and what really does is when your wife meets you in the den, after you’ve hung up the phone, and she says, “Was that Emory?” And I said, “Yeah.” And she’s kind of upbeat, saying, “And?” And I said, “It’s worse than we thought.” I said, “It’s cancer.” I don’t wish that moment on anybody, because it’s as real as it gets and as tough as it gets.
And then you’re just into a situation where there’s uncertainty, and sometimes that’s the worst. And folks who have been through cancer know that the worst thing is waiting another day for a phone call or waiting for a test result, because your mind wants to go all kinds of places. Your mind wants to go to the worst-case scenario, and your mind wants to go to your kids watching your funeral.
Ernie: And that’s where I am.
Jim: That’s what I was gonna ask you. What did you focus on?
Ernie: That’s where I’m at. And I’m like seeing my daughter getting married and not being there, graduations that I’m not there for. And I needed to talk to my pastor, because that’s—
Jim: Pastor Kevin.
Ernie: --Pastor Kevin. “PK, I need to talk to you.”
Jim: He sounds like a rock for you.
Ernie: He is. He’s awesome. And I, you know, because this is where I’m wanting to throw the punch right in the nose. “What are You doing to me, God?” And we did. We sat there. We sat at a Starbucks, and he’s like, “So it’s been six years or so, right Ernie?” “Yeah, it’s been six years.” “And now you’ve got this valley.” And he said, “December 10th, 1997, right?” I said, “Yeah, yeah.” He said, “That’s when you decided to trust Him with everything.” I said, “You’re right.” He said, “What’s trust looking like right now?” And he gets out a napkin--I’ve still got these napkins)--gets out a napkin and says, “Trust and question mark. Trust, comma. Trust, if. Trust, when.” And I’m saying, “Yeah, part of me is like, I’ll trust God if this next test comes back the way I want it to be.”
He says, “Where’s this? Trust God period.” And that’s where we landed the plane. And every day since then in 2003, you get an e-mail from me, the signature at the bottom is Ernie Johnson Jr., Trust God … period.
Ernie: And because that’s the way it had to be. Not God, I’ll trust You when You say this is gone. God, I’ll trust You if the next test comes back negative. And I said, “You’ve been there in some of these great mountaintop moments for me. Where am I shaking my first when all the good stuff’s happening? I’m not. And I’m not, you know.” So here’s your option now that you’ve got your cancer diagnosis. You can turn on God, or you can turn to God.
Jim: Say that again.
Ernie: You can turn on God or you can turn to God. So I’m not gonna turn on Him and say, “How could You let this happen?” And we, you know, we were into Job’s story, and you know what resonated, I was reading John 9, and I’m saying, okay, so here is Jesus and the disciples, and here’s this blind man on the side of the road. And all the disciples want to know is who sinned, this guy or his parents, that he’s blind?
And Jesus, you know, again, I’m going to paraphrase here, but the message was, Jesus is saying, “You’re asking the wrong question, fellas. It’s not why this happened. It’s how My Father’s gonna use it for His glory.” So like, I’m gonna trust God period. And I’m gonna see how this can be used to glorify Him. And I was good with that.
Ernie: And on we pressed, and then, turns out I didn’t need, you know, didn’t need to have treatment until 2006, and then I had six rounds of chemo and went into remission; been there ever since.
But on every step of that path it’s been, you know, and all those years before the treatment started and all those tests, it doesn’t matter how this test comes out. Certainly I would prefer it come back this way, but I’m gonna trust You. I’m gonna trust that this is a chapter in my story that I would not have chosen, but God will use it.
Jim: You said it well. Ernie Johnson Jr., popular host of TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” his new book, Unscripted, beautifully done. Thanks for being with us.
Ernie: You’re too kind. I appreciate it.
John: Well, we loved our visit with Ernie Johnson on “Focus on the Family” and how refreshing to hear about his journey into the Christian faith and how he grew in his understanding and learned to trust God through his cancer and so many other experiences.
Jim: John, I also loved that Ernie signs off his e-mails or other message with “Trust God ... period.” And that is such a great reminder for all of us. It is such a joy to hear how God was drawing Ernie and Cheryl to Himself and I know that there is someone, maybe many “someone’s” listening right now and you’re feelin’ that nudge to turn to the Lord for answers with your questions about life. Maybe you’re at the bottom, that pit that Ernie and Cheryl were at, you know, where it’s just comin’ at you and you don’t know what to do. There’s nothing that brings me greater pleasure than to invite you to receive Jesus Christ today, right where you are. You can trust Him for your eternal salvation and we’d love to pray with you and share with you about placing your faith in Christ.
John: And just call us and ask for one of our staff to pray with you or perhaps if you need a counselor because life is such a struggle right now, our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; 800-232-6459 and we also have a little booklet online. It’s called “Coming Home: An Invitation to Join God’s Family.” And tens of thousands of people have found this to be helpful in understanding how to have a relationship with God. It’s complimentary and you’ll find it at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio .
And when you call or while you’re online, be sure to look for Ernie’s book, Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments That Make Life Extraordinary. In fact, when you donate generously to the ministry here of Focus on the Family today, we’ll make sure to send a complimentary copy of that book to you and thanks in advance for supporting us as we share the love of Christ with others.
Well, coming up next time, you’re going to hear from Chonda Pierce as she describes her ministry of humor.
Mrs. Chonda Pierce: I had to stop deflecting and using comedy as a defense mechanism and truly use it as the treat that Jesus gave us to use it for.
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John: I’m John Fuller and on behalf of Focus president, Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. Join us again next time, as we once again, help you and your family thrive in Christ.
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