The ball hung in the air for what felt like a minute to John Johnson III. He didn’t see Dante Fowler’s hit on Drew Brees. He didn’t know the ball was tipped. He just turned around and saw the ball that could change the course of the NFC Championship Game hanging in the air “like a balloon.”
It was like fielding a punt for Johnson. He backpedaled and just prayed for the ball to make its way down to him sooner. Saints receiver Michael Thomas was on his way to break it up, and only one thing was going through Johnson’s mind.
“Catch the ball, John.”
The ball made its way into Johnson’s hands as the safety lost his balance and fell backward. He intercepted Brees’ overtime throw downfield at the Rams 46-yard line, sinking the hearts of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a game that seemed to be the Saints to win just minutes earlier.
“I had to have it,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want it. I had to have it.”
Five plays later, Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein made the 57-yard field goal to win the NFC Championship Game, sending the Rams to Super Bowl LII in Atlanta and ending the Saints’ season.
And after Johnson’s interception, he ran off and did the “Bike Life” dance the Saints have popularized in recent months.
Johnson was one of the big stars in the postgame locker room Sunday (Jan. 20). He’s not one of the bigger names on the Rams defense or even the secondary, but he made one of the biggest plays in Rams history, so he was one of the centers of attention.
National reporters consistently came up to Johnson, and the novelty of the situation wasn’t lost on him.
“People I hadn’t heard from in years,” he yelled with a smile.
Over and over again he recited the details of his moment. He told the story of how that ball took forever to come down and that it was like a balloon floating in the sky.
He didn’t even know where the Rams were on the field when he took it. He just caught the ball, was hounded by teammates and then went to the sideline to see the Rams were near midfield.
For Brees, though, this was a rare blunder on the biggest of stages, taking away one of his best chances for a second Super Bowl ring.
“Unfortunately, you get hit and the ball flying up in the air is a tough way to give the ball back to them in overtime,” Brees said.
Johnson was one of the heroes in a heartbreaking defeat for the Saints. Sunday is night he won’t soon forget, and he said the entire season was a special one for him.
“I’ll remember this season for the rest of my life,” he said. “Not just because we’re going to the Super Bowl, but because of the ups and downs, the negative talks, just the adversity we hit, everything that happened in LA, it will be a season to remember.”