NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Titans linebacker Jonathan Willard was honored for his courage during a moment of chaos, and Titans founder K.S. "Bud" Adams, Jr. was memorialized with a peaceful moment of silence Wednesday night at the 16th Annual Pepsi Celebration of Champions presented by Kroger.
The awards ceremony, held at the Grand Ole Opry House, is organized by the Nashville Sports Council to recognize individuals and teams who demonstrate high character while positively impacting the area through athletics.
|Above: News 2's John Dwyer and Kaia Jergenson present Jonathan Willard with the award that was created in honor of Jergenson's courage. Below: Willard meets the 2012 winner of the award, Andrew Kittrell, before the Nashville Sports Council's 16th Annual Pepsi Celebration of Champions presented by Kroger. Slideshow.|
Willard, an undrafted rookie in 2013 was traveling from his home state of South Carolina to Titans training camp last July. He was between Knoxville and Nashville on Interstate 40 when he saw smoke and balls of fire coming from a westbound vehicle. He flagged down the driver, and with another motorist, helped Cheri Hubbard, her three young children and the family's dog escape unharmed before flames destroyed the SUV.
"At the time the incident happened, it was about like football, how we say 'read and react,' it was 'see and react,' " Willard recalled. "I felt like I was put in that place because I guess the Lord knew I would help out, so I guess He put me there for a reason."
The harrowing story with such a positive outcome generated a buzz on social media sites, and *Good Morning America *interviewed Willard, who was nicknamed "Fire Chief" around the Titans' facility.
For his bravery, Willard received the Kaia Jergenson Courage Award, which was established in 2000 and recognizes "an individual whose courage and conviction transcend sports." It was presented to him by Jergenson, a Gallatin native and former Lipscomb basketball player who overcame hospitalization for a bacterial meningitis infection she contracted during her freshman year of college, and News 2 anchor/reporter John Dwyer. Jergenson underwent amputations below her knees on both legs but returned to manage for the Lady Bisons basketball team after her recovery and is currently in pharmacy school.
"It's a big honor, I mean just hearing (Jergenson's) story and all the things she had to overcome," Willard said. "Being a college athlete and doing pretty good and then something happens, so I can kind of see all the stuff she went through and how hard it had to be on her. Receiving this award in her name, words can't explain. It's like a really huge honor for me and also my family."
Willard was joined at the ceremony by his mother Annette Willard, who flew to Nashville from South Carolina.
"Oh my God, I am very proud. At first, I just saw a picture on Facebook, and I didn't think anything of it," she said. "About five minutes later, I started getting phone calls. I got calls from Virginia. I said, 'The Lord had him in the right place at the right time.' I was glad he was there to help the family. I was glad it was that situation and him not seeing the family get hurt worse. Thank God it happened the way it did."
When asked if she was glad she didn't see her son repeatedly reach into a burning car, Annette said, "Yes!," but added, "If I was there, I probably would have been right there helping. One thing I say, is if it's something God has in store for you to do, you'll be protected."
Willard said he was excited that his mom could join him at the ceremony.
"Without her, I wouldn't be getting this award because I feel like she was the one that shaped me through life and my family," he said. "I feel like she was a key part of my life, and without her, I wouldn't have reacted the way I reacted. I felt like it's a reflection on her."
Willard and his mother were able to meet Andrew Kittrell and his family backstage before the event. Kittrell won the 2012 Courage Award in recognition of his determination as a football player and track athlete who is missing fingers on each hand and uses a prosthetic left leg to compete for Mount Juliet Christian Academy. Kittrell has set a goal of competing in the 2016 Paralympic Games like 2001 recipient Ryan Fann, and hopes to play college and pro football.
|"Voice of the Titans" Mike Keith reads a statement in honor of Titans founder K.S. "Bud" Adams, Jr., who passed away Oct. 21, 2013.|
"Voice of the Titans" Mike Keith co-emceed the ceremony with Nashville Predators play-by-play announcer Pete Weber, while News 2's Dawn Davenport interviewed honorees.
Keith introduced the moment of silence for Mr. Adams with the following statement:
"On October 21, 2013, we lost Titans owner Bud Adams. In the nearly 20 years between Mr. Adams' first call to Phil Bredesen and his passing four months ago, his impact on our region was enormous.
"Since the team's arrival, the Titans have been responsible for approximately $20 million being given to worthwhile organizations. He wanted the club to promote high school football and it has done so with a Coach of the Week program and by sponsoring the state's Mr. Football Awards. And then there is a passion of NFL action every Sunday. With fans streaming in from every direction when the Titans are home at LP Field, the license plates in the parking lot read like a map of surrounding states. Every region of Tennessee is represented, as is Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi and every other state's. With this regional base of fans, the Tennessee Titans have sold out every game that they have ever played at LP Field and become a model for NFL teams around the league.
"Bud Adams was proud that the franchise that he loved so much for 54 years was so loved by this region. He took Nashville sports to a new level and we miss him. We ask now for a moment of silence for Titans owner Bud Adams."
Kaia Jergenson Courage Award Winners:
2013 Jonathan Willard
2012 Andrew Kittrell
2011 Conner and Cayden Long
2010 Kelsey Towns
2009 Rick Slaughter
2008 Don Meyer
2007 Neal Carroll
2006 Mike Sutton
2005 Gianna Jessen
2004 Adam Andrews
2003 Jeff Rutledge
2002 David Meador
2001 Ryan Fann
2000 Kaia Jergenson