Crouched on the field with his hand draped over his face, Isaiah Johnson was noticeably emotional after his game-winning play against the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday.
The former University of Houston product has had a long journey to this point, missing most of his rookie season last year with a season-ending injury, and it only got harder earlier this week.
Wednesday morning, Johnson learned that his close friend and former college teammate, Ka'Darian Smith, passed away in Houston.
"I found out that one of my close, close teammates [Ka'Darian Smith] that was like a little brother to me had passed away in Houston," Johnson told reporters postgame. "I played cornerback with him at U of H. He had lost his life in Houston this past Wednesday and I didn't tell a whole bunch of people about it because I knew we still had to prepare and win the game, and I didn't want to be a distraction."
With a heavy heart, Johnson put the team first, revealing his tragic loss to only a handful of people. Designated with scout team duties, Johnson practiced day-in and day-out, helping his teammates prepare for the team's division matchup with his friend Ka'Darian in the back of his mind.
Johnson wasn't expecting to see many reps against the Chargers, but he treated his preparation as if he was starting, trying to focus his attention on football. Early in the game, fellow second-year cornerback Trayvon Mullen was forced to leave the game with an injury, causing Johnson to hear his number called.
In Mullen's absence, Johnson totaled six tackles and two consecutive passes defensed, which were game-defining plays. With six seconds left on the clock and the Raiders leading 31-26, rookie quarterback Justin Herbert targeted Mike Williams with a fade, but Johnson fought to break up the play all the way to the turf. Given one more chance with one second on the clock, Herbert threw towards Johnson again, this time trying to connect with the much-bigger tight end, Donald Parham Jr., but once again Johnson held his ground.
"Knowing that I haven't had the opportunity to put that many snaps on film and they haven't really seen me — it's a rookie quarterback — he's a great quarterback by the way — then you've got Mike Williams and their biggest tight end come and line up on me? Yeah, absolutely, within the red zone I [knew what was] coming."
This offseason, Johnson dedicated himself to rehabilitation and was determined to come back stronger than ever for his second NFL season, but his opportunities have been limited, which is why he knew the Chargers would try to attack him throughout the game.
All week, Johnson prepared and put himself in a position to succeed for his teammates, but he'd be lying if he said he didn't play for something bigger than himself against the Chargers.
"I feel like that play, that game — not to make it about myself whatsoever — but I feel like that moment was for him," Johnson said of his late friend, "I knew that he would be with me in a situation like that."
Following the game, Derek Carr couldn't help but rave about Johnson's effort despite dealing what he was going through.
"He's a guy that gives us the best looks on scout team all the time and his number was called today, and he needed to step up," Carr said. "Not only did he have to give us good looks all week, but he had to go in and execute our scheme."
Head Coach Jon Gruden awarded Johnson awarded a game ball to commemorate the win, but it will always symbolize something greater.