NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Former Clemson linebacker Jonathan “Tig” Willard, a rookie with the Tennessee Titans, says he helped rescue a family from a burning vehicle on his way to Tennessee training camp.
The rookie was driving on Interstate 40 Tuesday near Oak Ridge when he noticed a sports utility vehicle smoking. He first told TigerNet.com that he flashed his lights and honked his horn to get the driver to pull over when he saw flames shoot out the back.
“As soon as I got to the car, I saw three small kids in the back seat and a dog,” Willard said Wednesday at the Titans' headquarters. “So for me, I'm thinking, `Hurry up and get the kids. 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 that the car might go up anytime.”
Willard said he handed an infant to the woman before pulling out another child. A second man who had stopped rescued a third child and the family's dog, and they were able to grab the woman's purse and a couple bags before the SUV exploded into flames a couple minutes later. He stayed long enough for firefighters to arrive and put out the fire.
“A lot of people passed by and didn't help, so she was just wanting to thank us and show us how thankful she was for us helping get the kids out and kind of grab some of the stuff,” Willard said.
A Tennessee Highway Patrol report shows the SUV of Cheri Hubbard of South Daytona, Fla., caught fire and burned Tuesday afternoon near mile marker 340. The investigating trooper told Dalya Qualls, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, that the witnesses already had left before he arrived and that Hubbard did not get the names of the men who helped her.
Hubbard did not immediately return a voicemail left on her cellphone by The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Willard certainly knows how to impress his new teammates. Clemson's leader in tackles last season, Willard is an undrafted free agent with Tennessee and was driving from Myrtle Beach to report for training camp when he spotted the smoking vehicle.
Coach Mike Munchak said he had been looking forward to hearing Willard's version of the story.
“He got involved in something that could have been bad,” Munchak said.
Cornerback Jason McCourty said it speaks highly of Willard to see something like that and put himself on the line to help save a family.
“That's pretty impressive that he was able to do that and still show up to camp on time,” McCourty said.
Loris High School Athletic Director Barry Brooks said Wednesday he’s not surprised by Willard’s actions.
“He’s a super kid. He’s a good young man,” Brooks said. “He’s the same kid that he was in ninth grade here.”
Willard could not be reached Wednesday for comment about the incident.
Willard signed a free agent contract with the Titans following the 2013 NFL Draft, according to Hood’s story.
Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or follow her at Twitter.com/tonyaroot. The Associated Press contributed to this report.