Thursday, April 26, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs rookie corner Leonard Johnson gets his drive from mom

TAMPA

Now, one supposes, we have to figure out a nickname for Leonard Johnson, too.

Johnson was streaking down the sideline, the end zone in his eyes and the ball game in his hands.

This is what it is like to play cornerback in the NFL. One play, you can get scalded for 80 yards, and another, you can look as if you are about to burst into flame.

Then, somehow, the ball is in your hands.

And if you listen closely, you can hear your mother's voice telling you to run faster.

"Run, Jay," the woman in Section 214 kept screaming. "Run, Jay, run."

This was their touchdown, a shared moment between a mother and her son. For all that it really matters, Schenique Harris might as well have been on the field, chasing Leonard down the field and across the goal line at Raymond James Stadium on the most important play of the day.

There were 108 plays in Sunday's game. This was the one that counted the most. It was early in the fourth quarter, with the Bucs clinging to a 24-21 lead, and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was having himself a day. Not to say the Bucs secondary was getting burned, but you could swear that smoke was billowing from the shoulder pads of the defenders. Nicknames? Everyone was about to be called "Toast." Everyone.

On third and 4 at the Bucs 23, Rivers was flushed to his right by tackle Gerald McCoy and tried to force the pass to Eddie Royal … and threw right to Johnson, who might as well have intercepted a dart on its way to the board.

It was the rookie's third pick in three games. This one, he returned 83 yards to score, weaving past all the scouts who doubted and the general managers who passed and the skeptics who talked about how fast he runs instead of how well he plays.

"We were in Cover 2, and I re-routed my guy," Johnson kept explaining. "The ball came right to me. I was so excited I grabbed it and started running. I was shocked I caught it. I was just praying no one caught me."

In other words, sometimes things work out. Sometimes a lousy draft day turns into a wonderful opportunity. Sometimes, the kid who dreamed of being Ronde Barber makes a play just like him.

"The intention was to throw it over (Johnson's) head," Rivers said. "I saw (Johnson) the whole time. The ball just kind of stayed in my hand longer than I wanted, and it took a nosedive right to him. In hindsight, I wish I had thrown the ball over his head, but I probably just shouldn't have thrown the ball, period."

For Johnson, this was a first. He never returned an interception for a touchdown at Iowa State. He didn't have one at Largo High, either, although most of his time there was spent at quarterback.

In other words, it was about time. That's what his mom kept saying last week when she constantly texted her son with the message "Pick Six Makes Sense." Turns out, it did.

"Listen, for him to get a touchdown is like a miracle," Schenique said, "because Leonard is super slow. I was like, 'Don't let one of the big guys catch him.' There at the end (when Johnson high-strided into the end zone), that was his recovery time. That was his Lord-I-am-tired move. That was his carry-me-Jesus move, trust me.'"

Schenique, a deputy with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, laughed some more, and chattered some more, and enjoyed the moment. She talked about the disappointment when the 2012 draft ended without Leonard's name being called, and about how she had always been a Bucs fan, and about how 20 or so kids from her Clearwater neighborhood would flock to her home to celebrate with Johnson, who would be permitted to go play just as soon as the 22-year-old finished cleaning his room.

Want to know who taught Johnson to tackle? It was Schenique.

Want to know who would practice doing interviews with him at the breakfast table when he was 9? It was Schenique.

Want to know who used to set out cones so he could do drill work at age 10? It was Schenique.

Want to know who is ready to put on the shoulder pads and play a little herself? In case coach Greg Schiano is interested, Schenique is ready.

For now, Johnson has been impressive enough. On a team that is running low on cornerbacks with the trade of Aqib Talib and Sunday's injury to Eric Wright, Johnson has been shoved toward the field faster than anyone would have imagined.

"I'm still shocked I'm playing in the NFL," said Johnson, who left the stadium with the ball tucked in his left hand, saying he planned to "strap it in" to the seat next to him for a safe ride home. "I'm still shocked I'm out there with the (starters). It hasn't hit me yet. I hope it doesn't until the offseason."

In the meantime, Cam Newton awaits. And Peyton Manning and Drew Brees and two shots at Matt Ryan. Johnson will have a lot of chances to make plays over the next seven games.

"How do you work on someone's speed?" Schenique asked. "Leonard has to get faster."

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