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Patriots' Leonard Johnson brings Little League-type flair to NFL stage

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After being claimed on waivers Dec. 9, cornerback Leonard Johnson burst onto the scene with the New England Patriots and grabbed attention with strong coverage in the slot -- and some excitable on-field dancing -- against the Houston Texans.

"I got that from Little League. That's just me playing," the personable Johnson said this week. "If you go back and watch a bunch of the kids in the area where I grew up, they all play with that excitement and that energy."

Johnson, 25, is from Largo, Florida, and he's especially proud of his roots. High school football is big in that area -- growing up, Johnson wanted to be like dual-threat quarterback Theo Wilson -- and it's something special for Johnson to represent that region.

"I just want to thank everybody in Clearwater for supporting me because it's an area where a lot of violence and drugs go on," he said. "Even the guys that were doing wrong, they supported me by keeping me off the street after a certain time."

On the field in New England, Johnson has settled in as the Patriots' No. 3 cornerback after thinking his season had come to an end when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers placed him on injured reserve (ankle) at the end of the preseason. Instead, the Buccaneers waived Johnson from injured reserve Dec. 3, and the Patriots soon pounced.

Johnson shared his "football journey" as part of ESPN.com's weekly feature:

When he first started playing football: "Seven years old. I had a bunch of older cousins that I grew up with and was very close to, and they played the game. I wanted to be like them."

NFL players he looked up to: "I was a huge Ronde Barber fan and later got a chance to play with him [in Tampa Bay]. That was life-changing. I loved Devin Hester, Ty Law."

Teams he liked growing up: "I had one team: the Tennessee Titans. Eddie George was the best I had ever seen when I was just starting, and I wanted to be a running back, so that was pretty much my team."

Top football memories at Largo High School: "Watching two running backs run for over 2,000 yards: Dexter McCluster and Brent Harvey. Also, being able to go undefeated through the regular season numerous times and then winning some big playoff games. And then, personally, when I did a front flip in the end zone in a big playoff game -- pretty cool."

Why enrolling at Iowa State was the right choice: "I had about 20 offers [from] a lot of different schools: Iowa, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, South Florida, Ole Miss ... Gene Chizik did a good job recruiting me. He was from Clearwater, and everything he had to offer, I believed it. I went up to Iowa State and had the time of my life. It was the best decision I made."

Top football memories at Iowa State: "Beating Oklahoma State and knocking them out of the national championship. Then, of course, beating Iowa and storming out on the field my senior year and taking the trophy back."

On entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent: "I was expecting to be drafted. I was following all the blogs and other stuff. But I didn't have a good combine experience, and that led to me going undrafted. I never let myself get discouraged. I just stayed the course and knew that if I could get on a team, I'd be able to stick."

Why the Buccaneers: "My agent thought Tampa was the best fit for me, and he was right. I had no clue, thinking like, 'Hey, they have Aqib Talib, Eric Wright, E.J. Biggers' and all these guys I know because I'm a Bucs fan. But he said, 'Trust me.'"

On making the Buccaneers roster as a rookie: "I couldn't believe it. I was waiting on a call that last cut day. They were saying, 'If you get a call, come in,' and I'm looking at every 813 number that is calling me and trying not to pick up. But I never got a call from them, so I got a little worried and called them. I called my coaches, and they were like, 'Don't worry, you made the team.'"

On his 48 games with 17 starts with the Buccaneers: "It was a wonderful time. I got to play home in front of my family and friends. I went through two coaching changes, and both did a phenomenal job with me, grooming me, putting me in a position to help the team. I just thank the Glazers and the whole organization for letting me play and giving me an opportunity as an undrafted guy."

On being released from injured reserve and signed by the Patriots on Dec. 9: "I was excited to get another chance to play the game, coming off the injury, especially for New England. I love it, and it's a lot of hard work. It's just a different feel -- the fans, the culture, the whole surroundings of being a Patriot."

What he loves about football: "It gives you a chance to compete every day. Every down is a new set of problems, and you have to find out a way to come out on top. The only way to do that is to dominate the guys across from you."

Summing up his football journey: "It's an exciting journey that I put a lot of hard work into. [I] faced a lot of adversity but always found a way to persevere and somehow come out on top."