TAMPA — In many ways, Bucs rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson is living his dream.
Johnson, a former Largo High star, is playing in the NFL for his hometown team. The 22-year-old delivered a big-time performance in his first start, including his first interception, in a nationally televised win over the Vikings on Oct. 25.
He has emerged as a nickel corner, and the Bucs likely will lean on him heavily thanks to Thursday's trade of Aqib Talib.
But that doesn't mean Johnson, making the NFL minimum $390,000 this season, gets a break from his weekly chores at his childhood home in Clearwater, where he still lives, sleeps in the same twin bed, and — apparently — sweeps the same floors.
"He's a really good cleaner," his mother, Schenique Harris, said. "He's like, 'Mom, I play football on Sunday and everyone's like, Oh, my God, that's Leonard Johnson. I'm signing autographs … But people don't know on Tuesday my mom has me sweeping floors, washing dishes, taking out the trash.'
"I'm like, 'That's because you're the only kid home.' "
With Johnson's eight siblings (five sisters, three brothers) moved out, it's up to him to tackle his mother's to-do list. But he can also save money and savor nightly home-cooked meals, like fish and grits.
He's surrounded by a support system, with 50 or more family and friends attending each home game at Raymond James Stadium.
And Johnson, who once helped put Largo High's football program on the map as an electric dual-threat quarterback, remains a fixture on the Packers sidelines on Friday nights.
"I'm active when I'm out there, too," he said. "I'm trying to get everybody motivated and pumped up."
It's just one way Johnson is active in a community that helped raise him. Harris, a sheriff's deputy, has seen many area kids get caught up in crime and go to prison. So she has encouraged her son to be a role model since his high school days, whether that meant visiting nursing homes, his old elementary schools or his former youth football team, the Greenwood Panthers.
"He needs to tell people about his story, so other kids will know it's possible for them," Harris said.
Johnson tells them he first got serious about football while watching the Bucs during their prime, with Ronde Barber leading them to a Super Bowl victory in 2002.
"My mom always used to tell me, 'One day you're going to take (Barber's) spot,' " Johnson said, smiling. "I'm like, 'I don't know, Mom, he may be done.'
"It's crazy because I'm here and he's still here."
However, it took a fortuitous fall for Johnson to land in Tampa Bay.
Johnson had a strong career at Iowa State, where he was opportunistic both on the field (six interceptions and 26 passes defensed) and off (making money cutting teammates' hair, having been taught by his barber-shop owning stepfather, Charles).
Johnson was disappointed to go undrafted after college, which he partly attributes to running 4.71 seconds in the 40 at the NFL combine. But in Johnson's final college game, the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on New Year's Day, he caught the eye of the opposing coach at Rutgers, Greg Schiano, who has since lauded the 5-foot-10, 220-pound corner for his toughness and not shrinking in big moments.
"He's not intimidated by any of it," Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "He's definitely making the most of the opportunity."
Johnson has come a long way since nervously waiting the day the Bucs and their first-year coach Schiano made their final training camp cuts.
With Talib gone, and cornerback Eric Wright reportedly facing a four-game suspension for using Adderall without a prescription, in violation of the NFL's drug policy, Johnson could see an expanded role.
Schiano said the key will be consistency, but Johnson has no problem staying grounded at home. He handed his mother the milestone ball from his first interception, fulfilling a promise he made to her as a boy.
She gave him a big hug and some inspirational words.
"I said, 'That's a big accomplishment, means you're moving forward. But the kitchen still has to be cleaned, the floor has to be mopped. And don't forget to make sure to clean the tub,' " his mother said.
"It doesn't really change."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]