(Photo: Screen Grab via The Tennessean)
Tennessee Titans rookie linebacker Jonathan Willard is giving God all the glory after he rescued a woman, her three children and their dog from a burning car just two minutes before it exploded on a highway on Tuesday.
According to a TigerNet report, Willard, 23, who signed a free agent contract with the Titans after the 2013 NFL Draft, was travelling on Interstate 40 to the team's training camp from South Carolina on Tuesday when he noticed a smoking car ahead of him.
"I saw this car in front of me, and it had all kinds of black smoke coming out of it," Willard told TigerNet Tuesday. "I tried to speed up and get up next to the car to let them know the car was on fire."
When he caught up to the car and saw a woman driving with three small children and a dog, he honked his horn and flashed his lights until the driver was forced to pull over.
"As soon as I got to the car, I saw three small kids in the backseat and a dog," Willard said. "So for me, I'm thinking, 'Hurry up and get everybody out and get them away from the car.' You could see, probably up under the engine, all that was still on fire. So I'm thinking the car might go up anytime," he told the USA Today.
Another motorist joined Willard in removing the family from the car, which included a baby, just in time before it exploded.
"We were just talking to them and getting them out and trying to keep everybody calm, keep everybody's spirits high," said Willard from the Titan's training camp.
"And then, probably two minutes after we got everyone out of the car and got everyone to safety, the car blew up once. Then, probably a couple minutes after that, it blew up again — probably about four times," he explained.
The 23-year-old then stayed with the family long enough to make sure they were fine and the fire trucks had extinguished the blazing vehicle. The magnitude of what he had done, however, didn't register in his mind until he was back in his own vehicle and on his way to his destination.
"At the time it wasn't scary," said Willard when he reported to the Titans training camp on Wednesday. "I guess I just figured I had to do it. But afterward I realized how dangerous and scary it really was."
"It kind of topped everything I've ever done on the football field. Afterward, I was driving, and I started shaking," he added. "I was just nervous. It was a rush. I was like, 'I need to calm down.'"
Despite the fear he felt afterward, he is thankful that God had him stop at the moment he did.
"I just feel like I was in the right place at the right time," said Willard. "I give all the glory to God. I just felt like I was there for a reason."
On hearing the news, Willard's coach and his teammates praised him for his heroism.
"I'm proud of him," said Titans Coach Mike Munchak. "We're proud that he got involved. He saw something, reacted in a positive way and brought good to a tough situation. We'll probably have him stand up in front of the team and explain when we get started, so we can start camp on a very positive note."
"It speaks very highly of him that he could be riding down the street and see something like that and be able to put his life on the line to save another family," said cornerback Jason McCourty.
"I was just glad that we got the kids and all of them out of the car," Willard said on Wednesday.
"I was thinking that I was just doing what everybody else would do, but there were cars just going past us and no one else was stopping, so I don't know if that is what would happen or not," said Willard.