Jonathan Willard did not think about the danger. Until later.
It was sometime after he helped a mother and her three young children from a burning car along Interstate 40 on Tuesday that the Tennessee Titans rookie linebacker began to digest what he had done.
“I started shaking one time,” he said. “I was just nervous and was trying to calm down.”
The free agent from Clemson made it to Nashville on schedule and was among the numerous roster hopefuls when the team officially opened training camp Wednesday.
He also, however, was a bit of a national celebrity because of what he did on his trip from Myrtle Beach. His heroics had made headlines by the time the team gathered for its first meeting.
“I’m looking forward to talking to him and hearing it in his own words,” coach Mike Munchak said. “We’re proud that he got involved, saw something and reacted in a positive way and brought good to a tough situation.
“… I may have him stand up in front of the team and explain it when we get started so we can start on a positive note.”
Willard said that he noticed smoke from a car ahead of him as the vehicles climbed a hill in east Tennessee. When flames shot out the back of the other vehicle he sped up, flashed his lights and honked his horn in an attempt to get the driver’s attention. The driver of a third vehicle, another man, did the same.
“Whenever she got to the side of the road me and [the third driver] just went and rushed over there,” Willard said. “As soon as I got to the side of the car I saw three small kids in the backseat and a dog. I’m thinking, ‘Hurry up and get the kids. Hurry up and get everybody out and get them away from the car.’ ”
He estimated that the oldest of the children was no more than five. He grabbed the youngest and handed it to the mother. Then he grabbed a second child. The other man collected the third child and the dog. They also gathered a purse and other small belongings before they felt it no longer was safe.
“Probably like two minutes after we got everybody out of the car and got everybody to safety the car blew up once — boom! — and then a couple minutes after that it blew up again,” he said. “I think it blew up, say, four times.
“… At the time it wasn’t scary. I guess I just figured I had to do it. But afterward I realized how dangerous and how scary it really was.”
Willard was a two-year starter at Clemson who averaged more than seven tackles per game last season.
He is one of two rookies among 10 linebackers on the training camp roster. The other is third-round draft pick Zaviar Gooden, which means Willard’s chances are slim to make the 53-man roster. He already has made a name for himself, though.
“That’s pretty impressive that he was able to do that and still show up on time,” cornerback Jason McCourty said. “That speaks very highly of him that he would be riding down the street and see something like that, and put his life on the line to save another family.”
Willard said the resultant adrenaline rush “topped everything I’ve done on the field.” He dismissed the idea, though, that his actions were out of the ordinary.
“I just feel like I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I give all the glory to God. I just feel like I was there for a reason.”