Linebacker Jonathan Willard #49 of the Tennessee Titans attends rookie camp on May 10, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
By John Glennon | The Tennessean
He was getting close to the final stretch of a tiring 600-mile car trip to Nashville, already preparing himself mentally for the start of his first NFL training camp.
But Titans linebacker Jonathan Willard wasn't too tired or too busy to help save a family on Tuesday.
Willard, an undrafted free agent out of Clemson, risked his own life by entering a burning car alongside I-40 in Tennessee. He and another passerby helped pull a woman, her three small children and a dog out of the vehicle only minutes before it exploded.
"At the time it wasn't scary," Willard said Wednesday as the Titans reported for training camp. "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. I was just nervous. It was a rush. I was like, 'I need to calm down.' "
Willard's story began as he was about six or seven hours into his drive from Myrtle Beach, S.C.
As he came to the top of a hill -- he believes it was somewhere near Knoxville -- he saw smoke coming out from a car in front of him. Willard tried to warn the driver of the car, but she believed the smoke was coming from a nearby 18-wheeler, so she continued to drive for another 30 seconds or so.
When Willard then saw two flames shoot out of the back of the car, he renewed his attempts to warn the woman, blowing his horn and flashing his lights before both cars finally pulled 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."
Willard and another motorist helped remove the family, which included an infant and two other very young children.
"We were just talking to them and getting them out and trying to keep everybody calm, keep everybody's spirits high," Willard said. "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."
Willard, 23, stuck around long enough to make sure that the family was OK and that fire trucks had put out the flames before resuming his drive to Nashville.
"I just feel like I was in the right place at the right time," Willard said. "I give all the glory to God. I just felt like I was there for a reason."
Willard said he doesn't feel like a hero, but his coach and teammates heaped praise upon him.
"I'm proud of him," Titans coach Mike Munchak said. "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."
Said cornerback Jason McCourty: "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."