As he raced down the sideline towards the end zone at Raymond James Stadium last Sunday, football in hand after snagging an errant Philip Rivers pass, Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson was living out a lifelong dream.
A Clearwater native and product of nearby Largo High School, Johnson grew up a Bucs fan and surely spent many an afternoon playing football in the park. No doubt he imagined himself on the field of that very stadium, picking off passes and sending the pewter and red faithful into a frenzy.
That scenario has now come true – as Johnson has tallied an interception in each of the Bucs' last three games – and the undrafted rookie free agent out of Iowa State says playing for his hometown team has been a surreal experience.
"It's been everything that I can imagine," Johnson said. "It's something I've dreamed about since I was a little kid."
Best of all, Johnson has his own special cheering section in the stands at every Bucs home game, led by his mother, Schenique Harris.
"My family comes out, from my mother to even the guys down the street, pretty much everybody that watched me grow up and helped me along the way comes out and supports me," Johnson said. "There's nothing like seeing somebody you know on the jumbo screen after you do something good."
With an interception in every game since he became an active part of the Bucs' defense, Johnson is playing with confidence and enjoying his expanded role. He credits his work on the practice field and in the meeting room during the week, as well as his fellow defensive backs, for helping him become integrated into the defensive scheme and make plays on Sundays.
"I just feed off my preparation during the week and the guys around me," Johnson said. "That's pretty much how that gets done. I don't really think about the role that's presented to me. Of course I acknowledge it, but I just try to handle the task, which is to do my job and take care of my responsibilities.
"All the guys help me out," Johnson continued. "All the guys are pitching in, from Ronde [Barber], even to new guys that come in, because we kind of work together. The secondary is a group that's special on every team. Once everyone comes together and has a relationship with each other, then everyone kind of feeds off that."
Despite his recent success, and as overwhelming as it might be for a young NFL player to be enjoying such a run of big plays – in front of his family and hometown fans, no less – Johnson says he's doing his best to stay grounded, keep his focus, and continue to make Bucs fans proud.
"I'm definitely excited, but it doesn't stop here," Johnson said. "Every week is a new challenge. Every week I have to humble myself and calm back down, because it doesn't stop. The competition still rises, and there's a lot of great guys in this league that do this for a living, and I'm new to it. So I just try my best to come back week after week and continue to just grind and stay focused."