A Giving Receiver

Photos courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts.
In December 2019 Marcus Johnson pulled off an amazing feat with his feet.

Marcus is a speedy Indianapolis Colts wide receiver, a volunteer Young Life leader at Pike High School and a huge admirer of sneaker culture.

He was able to combine his three passions — faith, football and footwear — in a unique way during week 11 of the National Football League schedule.

As part of the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign, Marcus was able to show off his love for Young Life through a special pair of customized cleats in a game versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which just happened to coincide with his best statistical day as a professional wide receiver.

“It was a really big moment,” Marcus said. “The Young Life cleats, my faith, having a really big game, that’s nobody but God. When people hear these stories, all you can do is thank God and acknowledge how He works.”

HIS CAUSE

Marcus’s journey to becoming a Young Life leader is as unique as his journey to the NFL.

An undrafted rookie out of the University of Texas, Marcus’s lightning-fast 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash appealed to the Philadelphia Eagles. And while everything in his career seemed to be falling into place, other parts of his life weren’t as together.

“When I was with Philadelphia, I gave my life to Christ,” Marcus said. “That was about two and a half years ago. My rookie year in Philadelphia, I was going through a lot in my personal life … a lot of uncertainty. I was trying to figure out who I was, and who I was going to be in my faith. God just kept tugging at my heart.

“At the end of my rookie year in January, I remember being on my hands and knees by myself just crying and praying. I needed help. I was asking God to guide me and allow me to take the next step in my faith.”

It’s a prayer Marcus has seen God answer.

In October of his second season, Marcus was surrounded by teammates when he was baptized in a hotel pool before an away game at Carolina. His social media posts about the baptism went viral.

“I kept saying, ‘Hey I don’t know when I can get it done, but I want to get baptized,’” Marcus said. “I wasn’t even going to post it. I was going to keep that to myself. And somebody just encouraged me, ‘Man, you should post it. People should see that.’ And it blew up. I believe hundreds of thousands of people saw it. It was amazing to see how God worked in that moment.”

In 2018 Marcus was traded to the Indianapolis Colts. Pike Township Young Life Area Director Mike Newton came to Philadelphia after pioneering multiethnic work in the Roanoke, Virginia, area. Later, Mike moved to Indianapolis and was introduced to Marcus by a mutual ministry friend from Philadelphia.

“Mike was a major blessing when it came to holding me accountable,” Marcus said. “I went from sitting back and seeing how they operated everything to saying, ‘You know what, I need to take more responsibility in this, and I want to be a leader.’”

HIS CLEATS

The NFL allows players to wear cleats to support different non-profits and charities once a year during the “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign. Marcus wanted to surprise Mike and the other Pike Township Young Life leaders by wearing the cleats in a game during the campaign week.

“My biggest motivation was to do a tribute to the Pike Young Life staff,” Marcus said. “I got traded to the Indianapolis Colts and I was going through a lot. It was bittersweet. I was coming off my first season-ending injury, and I think it was God sitting me down and giving me the opportunity to grow in my faith and in the community, and that started with Young Life.”

Mike was shocked when he first saw the customized cleats with the Young Life theme.

“To be honest, it was a total surprise,” Mike said. “Marcus didn’t tell me he was getting cleats made. I thought it was really cool. He’s not just a person who says this is a cause for him. He’s an actual leader who comes every week to everything.”

Due to a preseason injury, the cleats caught Marcus by surprise, too.

Marcus is the first athlete shown opening the cleats in one of the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” promo videos, and it’s because of his own stunned response to seeing the cleats.

Marcus, who was waived due to injury and then re-signed, said, “I was in limbo for a while, and I had forgotten I put the request in for the Young Life cleats. In week 11, we’re getting ready to do the ‘My Cause, My Cleats,’ and in my mind, I don’t have any. I don’t even think they had my request … It was a genuine surprise.”

Marcus is well acquainted with sneaker culture. And while he has a deep love and appreciation for shoes, he also has too much financial restraint to overpay for shoes. Still, he has a fine-tuned eye for sneaker details the way a museum curator may have for a particular artistic piece.

“When I first saw the cleats, I scanned everything,” Marcus said. “I didn’t miss anything; the way they designed the background of the colors and adding that little bit of flair with the blue laces. It just made it pop that much more.”

The old adage about looking good and playing good held up in Marcus’s case, as the wideout secured the first 100-yard receiving game of his young career. Included in the performance was a beautiful 46-yard touchdown reception, the second of the season for Marcus.

Mike had almost completed his commute home from church when he heard Marcus’s scoring play on the radio. He rushed into the house to catch the replay.

“I flipped out,” Mike said. “I went crazy. We all went crazy. I sprinted in the house. I’m yelling at the TV and running around.”

And, of course, Marcus had the perfect celebration to cap his touchdown.

“I just pointed the cleats out,” Marcus said. “I gave that moment to Young Life and the Pike Township chapter.”

PRICELESS

The cleats also performed well off the field, raising $10,000 for Young Life Pike Township. Only New England Patriots legendary quarterback Tom Brady’s cleats raised more money during the campaign.

“They are going to be going into the Young Life Service Center,” Mike said. “It’s huge for us.”

And Marcus is happy to use his gift to give back.

“I was thankful,” Marcus said. “To see that money that someone put out for the cleats, it comes back to Pike and Young Life. I’m just excited to see how it helps us to grow the ministry.”

Even more valuable than the money he raised is Marcus’s presence with the kids as a volunteer leader.

“He has instant respect,” Mike said. “He speaks great truth to them, and they listen because of who he is. They want to be him, so he has a platform. And he carries that platform over to, ‘Hey, just don’t be like me on the football field. Be like me in how I live for the Lord.’”

Marcus believes he has a lot to share with the students he’s connected with through Young Life.

“The testimony I have is undeniable when you talk about faith and how God works,” Marcus said. “And that’s my biggest thing, making sure I’m humble and all glory goes to Him. I always tell people I know more about failure than success. My faith has held me through my trials.”