From couples counseling to late-night calls, team pastor Chad Johnson is there for Steelers

Chad Johnson has been a NFL team pastor for 13 years, nine with the Arizona Cardinals and the last four with Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Chad Johnson

Chad Johnson isn't ever really on the clock. He doesn't have a time sheet. The Pittsburgh Steelers don't pay his salary. But there's Johnson every season, fielding 2 a.m. calls from players who might need guidance, a chance to vent about a family issue, legal trouble, whatever.

He's prayed over shattered knees, broken legs, dislocated shoulders. This time of year, he's following up with players who expressed interest in making a mission trip to Haiti. All this is done on the side from the usual in-season services -- Saturday night chapel, pregame prayers, couples ministry for players and coaches once a week, coach-specific Bible study on Fridays.

The life of an NFL team pastor is far from glamorous, but Johnson has proven his worth with 13 years in the league, nine with the Arizona Cardinals and the last four with Pittsburgh after Mike Tomlin recruited him. He also pastors the Los Angeles Dodgers for spring training.

The job description for Johnson, 38, is simple: Teach the Bible, add the "life" element to the football grind. On game days, he quietly roams the sideline. But his work is done well before kickoff.

"These guys need somebody that's not just football that they can trust that isn't weighing their stat sheet or looking at their performance and equating value to their performance," Johnson said. "Hopefully I could provide a breath of fresh air in a very pressurized situation."

A Southwest New Mexico native turned point guard at Arizona Christian University, Johnson got his NFL break when former Cardinals coach Denny Green told a mutual friend he was looking for a "reverend." Johnson was the recommendation.

He's funded by the missionary group Athletes in Action. Everything he does inside the Steelers' walls is optional for players and coaches. Johnson said most team pastors are not paid by the team, though the Steelers cover certain expenses during the season.

NFL teams are mandated to accommodate expression of worship within the team context. Johnson fulfills that role, though he adds there are appropriate channels and resources for non-Christians, as the Steelers "respect whatever belief system anybody has."

The Steelers' locker room includes many practicing Christians. As Johnson estimates, about 30 to 35 players and coaches regularly attend his chapel services. Johnson can't talk about his personal relationships with specific players because of confidentiality/trust issues.

Technically, Johnson isn't part of the team. But it doesn't feel that way.

"Coach Tomlin has fully integrated me, made me basically a part of the coaching staff, allows me to be fully accessible for the guys at all times," said Johnson, who also spent time with the New York Giants during their Super Bowl XLVI run. "Coach Tomlin is an avid supporter. He believes in it. He's really the reason why I'm there. I do think that's a big part of his values. He looks for well-rounded men in all aspects of life."

All parties involved needed high character to get through a 2015 season that saw injuries to several key players. The season involved "a lot of praying, a lot of talking, a lot of reasoning with the guys," Johnson said.

For couples' studies, a different player each week will host teammates and their spouses at his home. The group caters food while Johnson provides guidance on how to maximize the married experience.

"The trenches, for me, is more so in the personal discipleship or mentorship," Johnson said. "Most of my time is spent with players."

During teaching time, Johnson reminds players of their unique platform and the potential pitfalls of NFL fame. He offers them context to Philippians 4:13, a popular Bible verse among professional athletes -- "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." The verse applies to contentment in all circumstances, not how many sacks you can get in a season.

"I don't treat them like they are stars, but people," Johnson said. "As an athlete, you get served all the time. It's easy to develop a serve-me mindset, even if they aren't selfish guys, because they are used to that either day. So when guys serve others, I light up."

For Johnson, the reward comes not from wins on the field, but when players start families or get involved in their church.

He wants those 2 a.m. calls.

"That reminds me, 'Yes, I'm here for a reason,'" Johnson said.