Olrick Johnson has made his share of tackles during his career as a NFL linebacker.
For the big game this week the former player for the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots won’t be wearing cleats, though. Instead, he will don a choir robe during Super Bowl LIII.
Johnson, 40, will join 49 other current and former pro players who are members of the NFL Players Choir, which made its debut as an ensemble in 2008 at Super Bowl XLII in Phoenix. They will share their faith through music during the 20th annual Super Bowl Gospel Celebration, which will be held Thursday at Atlanta Symphony Hall.
“I don’t know if the shock factor will ever go away,” said Johnson, who has caught more than a few side eyes when he takes the stage. Johnson, a tenor, sang in his church choir in Miami as a youth and has performed backup for Gloria Estefan and Jon Secada.
Music and sports have always been part of his life.
An uncle was the original drummer for KC and the Sunshine Band, his “play auntie” was R&B and soul singer Betty Wright. His father was the minister of music at his church and at one point managed the Sunshine Band.
“It’s a very, very special appointment when you can show people that they can’t put you in a box,” he said. Since his retirement from professional football in 2004, Johnson now acts, writes and produces music. “I always knew what I wanted to do after football. I always knew my passion was music.”
Choir members, who huddle and pray before each performance, are hard hitters musically and athletically.
They include a classically-trained pianist and several recording artists. There are Heisman Trophy winners, Super Bowl champions and Hall of Famers.
“It’s a huge deal to see all of these current and former players take off their helmets and show how truly talented they are,” said Melanie Few, an Atlanta native and founder of the gospel celebration.
The host for the gospel celebration is comic and radio personality Rickey Smiley.
In addition to the NFL players choir, other performers for the sold-out event include Kirk Franklin, the Winans, Tasha Cobbs Leonard, Koryn Hawthorne, Tamia, Hezekiah Walker and Lecrae.
As the story goes, singer Patti LaBelle was performing during a gospel celebration several years ago when she spotted several of the players in the audience. She asked if all those good-looking men could sing as well. Several came on stage and blew her away with their vocal ability, said Few.
The choir is directed by Grammy-winning producer Myron Butler, who has worked with gospel greats like Franklin, Marvin Sapp, Tamela Mann and Smokie Norful.
Butler, who is based in Dallas, said he was attracted to the vision of “football meeting faith.”
“I got a chance to meet the fellows and you come to understand that here is a group of men who are believers and love the Lord and they aren’t ashamed of their faith in God,” he said.
Another choir member, Bryan Scott spent his 10-year NFL career with the Atlanta Falcons, the New Orleans Saints and the Buffalo Bills.
Growing up he sang in the choir in his church outside of Philadelphia.
Like Johnson, music has always been a passion. He calls the experience of singing in the NFL choir “surreal” and said its a continuation of the camaraderie he often felt with others players in the game.
“It’s showing positivity to the world,” he said, and shows another side of players off the field. “We can be transparent.”