NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jonathan Willard was several hours into his drive from Myrtle Beach, S.C., Tuesday to return and report for Titans training camp when he saw smoke and flames from the car in front of him.
Willard accelerated on Interstate 40 west of Knoxville, honking his horn and flashing his lights to alert the driver of the SUV. The Titans rookie linebacker and another motorist traveling separately approached the SUV once it stopped near mile marker 340 and helped a woman, three children and a dog escape moments before flames engulfed the vehicle.
"I saw three small kids in the back seat and a dog," Willard said. "I'm thinking, 'Hurry up and get the kids, hurry up and get everybody out.' "
Willard said one of the children was an infant and estimated that the oldest child was about 5 years old. Willard pulled the infant from the vehicle and handed it to the lady, then grabbed another child as the other motorist pulled the third child and dog from the vehicle. Willard said the SUV experienced the first of multiple explosions about two minutes after the family had been moved to safety.
When asked Wednesday if he considered himself a hero, Willard said, "No sir. I just feel like I was in the right place at the right time and I give all the glory to God. I just feel like I was there for a reason."
Willard said he and the other motorist tried to keep the family calm until firefighters arrived to extinguish the blaze.
It was one of those moments where a person responds to a need without fully realizing how dangerous the situation is.
"At the time it wasn't scary. I guess I just figured I had to do it. Afterward I realized how dangerous and how scary it really was," Willard said. "It kind of topped everything that I've ever done on the field. As I was driving here, I started shaking one time."
Titans coach Mike Munchak hadn't had a chance to talk to Willard about the rescue but looked forward to hearing the recap from Willard, an undrafted rookie linebacker who played collegiately at Clemson.
"We're proud that he got involved, saw something and reacted in a positive way and brought good to a tough situation," Munchak said. "I'm looking forward to hearing his version of it. The organization is proud of him that he got involved in a situation that could have been bad."
Defensive teammates Jason McCourty and Derrick Morgan said they were impressed by Willard's response.
"That's pretty impressive that he was able to do that and still show up to camp on time," McCourty said. "That speaks very highly of him that he would be riding down the street and see something like that and put his life on the line to save another family."
Added Morgan: "That's a pretty amazing story. Like (Willard) said, it was a blessing that he was able to be there and help out that family."