Carolina Panthers cornerback Leonard Johnson blitzed, and by the time Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer seemed to see him, he was halfway to the grass.
The Carolina Panthers cornerback untangled himself from Palmer, rolled, and sprang up into a half-crouch, gyrating, strutting and pumping his arms in celebration.
“Man, I’ve been working on that dance two years now,” he said, laughing. “I think it’s a 10. My hips was movin’, my legs was movin’…”
In the stands, dancing along in their seats with their daddy, were Johnson’s 1- and 2-year-old daughters, Parker and Paisley.
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That sack was part of an eight-tackle performance in his first game action of the year after he sat out the spring and summer while recovering from Achilles surgery.
Parker and Paisley weren’t the only ones excited by their daddy’s big play. That sack, and the energy Johnson added to a secondary that has struggled this season, inspired his teammates, too.
“He brought the juice,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
“He brought electricity, for sure,” defensive tackle Kawann Short added.
Part of the motivation for Johnson is his daughters. They don’t understand yet, he says, but he explains to them that he’s in Charlotte while they are in Tampa so he can provide for them.
“I just speak life to them,” he said. “I come from a huge family, and that’s just what my parents instilled in all of us, is to be very family-oriented. I’ve got five sisters and two brothers, and that’s the way I was brought up.
“I want to make sure that when my kids grow up that I did a great job in instilling the values and some of those morals that my parents did in me as well.”
The girls’ picture and a love letter from them sit in Johnson’s locker, and he FaceTimes with them daily and flies them to Charlotte with their mother for each home game.
While they were his inspiration as he worked to recover from his Achilles surgery and return to the field, they weren’t the only one.
The Panthers signed Johnson just three months after his Achilles surgery, which had been performed by the Panthers’ Dr. Robert Anderson. Signing a player mid-recovery is a risk. Signing one fresh off an Achilles injury – no matter the surgeon – is a greater one.
“I knew that suffering an Achilles injury would be hard to bounce back from,” Johnson said. “But I had faith that I would be able to come back from it. The only matter was just being able to get on a team.”
An undrafted free agent out of Iowa State in 2012, Johnson spent the better part of four years with the Buccaneers, mostly as a backup, before being released after breaking his leg.
He was picked up by the New England Patriots shortly thereafter and joined the 53-man roster in December. They cut him in February, and his surgery was in March.
Then, he drifted.
“I had a team full of prayers, man, that was pushing me and supporting me through the whole way,” he said. “It was definitely a process that I didn’t take for granted.”
When Carolina signed him in July, Johnson saw hope.
“My whole perspective changed when Carolina signed me,” he said. “It allowed me to rest and not compete during training camp. So my whole thing was just, ‘Whenever I’m healthy, I just need to find a way to reward the organization for paying me throughout training camp and throughout the first part of the season.’”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn’t see a risk.
“The biggest thing with Leonard was looking at him on tape,” said Rivera. “And then we’ve got probably the top foot doctor telling (us) that, as long as he does it the right way he should be fine.
“Based on what we saw, we felt good about the risk. We just wish we could’ve gotten him back on the field sooner.”
Johnson wanted to be out there, bad. At practice during his rehab, he wore game-day pants to remind him of the goal.
“Nobody is going to keep me off the field other than me,” he said. “When I go to a different team and a different organization and put my best foot forward, that should be good enough to get me on the field.”
There was no doubt in Rivera’s mind that Johnson could immediately contribute when healthy.
“You see it, watching him play,” he said. “He’s really got an infectious way about him, an infectious attitude with who he is on the football field.
“After I watched how hard he worked, and his enthusiasm on things, it’s been good. He’s kind of what we were hoping for in terms of the nickel position.”
Johnson appreciated that confidence.
After his performance against the Cardinals, he repeated one phrase to anyone who talked to him.
“I’m just so grateful,” he said Sunday. “Grateful to this organization. I want to repay everyone, all of them for what they did for me.”
As Johnson worked through his rehabilitation, he found his identity with the team on the practice field. He got chattier as the days went by, and drew attention when he began practicing during the Panthers’ bye week two weeks ago.
“I noticed it right away,” Rivera said. “I was like, ‘OK, he’s getting into it.’ And he was into it. And he was definitely chatty. You could hear him out there. He says some pretty outlandish things in terms of getting after guys and challenging guys.”
Added fellow cornerback Daryl Worley, “He’s a great energy, on and off the field. The same guy you see on Sunday, we see on the practice field and in the locker room.”
His daughters’ personalities are starting to develop, too, and in ways they take after their father.
Parker, Johnson said, is the more cautious of the two. She’ll appraise somebody when she meets them, to see what they’re all about.
Paisley is nicknamed Candy, “because she’s so sweet,” Johnson says. She makes friends easily, giving kisses to everybody she meets.
But Paisley is more like Johnson, he said, with the perfect personality for a cornerback.
With all her sweetness, she’s “a little bit rough, a little bit of a bully,” he said.
Just like dad.