Martin Fennelly Columns
Fennelly: Bucs' hometown hero Johnson grants mom's wish
TAMPA - The football hit him in the hands. "I just grabbed it and went to running," Leonard Johnson said. He ran 83 yards down the sideline before veering into the south end zone at Raymond James Stadium, stylishly high-strutting across the final 20 yards or so, right in the same place he used to go as a kid to watch Tampa Bay Buccaneers games. In Section 214, his mom was screaming and praying, praying and crying, as he raced on in.They made the journey together, like always. It was early in the fourth quarter of the Bucs' third consecutive win and Johnson's interception return changed everything. One moment the San Diego Chargers were driving, and in the next they were down 10 points. It was the 22-year-old rookie cornerback's third pick in as many games and his first touchdown since he made so many of them as a quarterback for Largo High School. He's a hometown hero from the North Greenwood neighborhood of Clearwater, a place he loves. Out of nowhere, he's another new Bucs darling. It seemed as if everybody Johnson knew was at the stadium Sunday, but there would be a big crowd when he got back to the house on Palm Bluff Street. The children in his neighborhood would be waiting at his front yard. There isn't much money in North Greenwood and there's too much crime, but Leonard Johnson is their hero, who went and played college ball, who kept at it after he wasn't drafted. Now he's a star for the local pro team. He made it, but he still plays catch with the local kids when he's around, a point of light in North Greenwood. "It feels like a fairy tale," his mother said. Mom would be a loving, joyous dynamo named Schenique. Her name is tattooed on her son's right breast. "I'm the biggest momma's boy you'll ever meet," Johnson said. She was waiting for her son after the game, she and that incandescent smile, along with her husband, Charles, some of Leonard's brothers and sisters (he has seven), friends and old coaches. Leonard Johnson had the interception ball, the first Pick Six of his life, tucked away, safe and sound. His mom had been asking for it all week. She liked his first two NFL interceptions just fine, but Johnson kept getting her text, the same one: Pick Six Makes Sense . Actually, she didn't have to text. Schenique could have just yelled up the stairs, since Johnson lives at the house, the only child still there, still doing chores. Great game … now clean your room. Schenique, a Piniellas County Sheriff's deputy, said "Pick Six Makes Sense" under her breath just before Johnson made the interception, then followed him down that sideline, every step, as if she was running, too. "For him to get a touchdown is like a miracle, because Leonard is super slow," Schenique said with a grin. As for that big finish, that strut and glide … "That's his recovery time," Schenique said with a laugh. "That's glide in because I need to recover, because to run it 83 yards, well, that was his, 'Lord … I … am … tired .' That was his, 'Carry me, Jesus,' move, trust me." They dreamed about this together. When Johnson was growing up, Schenique would make him do his drills in the front yard. "I used to line up cones," Schenique said. "People would pass by and laugh at him and he'd come inside crying. 'Ma, they're laughing at me because they're seeing my drills.' I'd tell him, 'In 10 years, they won't be laughing. Stay focused. Now go out there and run that drill.' " She's pretend to interview him at the breakfast table to get him ready for dealing with media. She'd turn a spatula into a microphone… Tell me about the game last night. Her son would shake his head like Ma was crazy. She'd tell him to always lean on his faith – and to give back, give to his community. Johnson organizes football camps for locals and works with the learning disabled. Even now, Schenique shows her son tackling techniques ("I just wrap him up") or quizzes him about upcoming Bucs opponents. Do you know Percy Harvin? What can you tell me about Antonio Gates? Schenique could start on my defense any day. When Johnson wasn't drafted after a career at Iowa State, mother and son stood in the front yard, right where he had done all those childhood drills. They told each other God had a plan. That's when the Bucs called, offering a free-agent signing, a chance to show all the doubters. No one said it would be easy. Sunday, on the third play from scrimmage, Johnson tried to tackle Chargers receiver Danario Alexander after a short pass. Johnson couldn't hold on. He fell to the grass. Alexander went for an 80-yard touchdown, 7-0, just like that. Schenique closed her eyes and silently told her son to stay strong. And then it was the fourth quarter, and her kid grabbed it and went to running, in the place where he lived, a regular fairy tale.