It seemed like a slam dunk that Bears safety DeAndre Houston-Carson would go to sleep with a smile on his face Sunday night, still euphoric after registering the first interception of his five-year NFL career to preserve a win over the Panthers earlier in the day.
But then a phone call he wasn't expecting changed everything. On the other end of the line was Sean Campbell, Houston-Carson's closest friend since middle school, the best man at his wedding. Campbell relayed the sad news that his mother, Sherry Campbell, had suddenly passed away that night.
"He's like a brother to me and she was like a mother to me," said Houston-Carson, who grew up in Fredericksburg, Va. "I spent countless hours over at their house. She wasn't sick. It was pretty sudden. I still can't believe that it's real."
As Houston-Carson returns to Halas Hall this week to begin preparing for Monday night's road game against the Rams, he has vowed to dedicate the rest of the season to his best friend's mom. He also intends to "try not to take anything for granted" and "thank God for the opportunity I get to do what I love to do."
The football that Houston-Carson intercepted on a pass from Teddy Bridgewater in Carolina to seal a 23-16 victory with 1:28 remaining will soon belong to Sean Campbell.
"He said the last thing that he talked to [his mom] about was her seeing that play," Houston-Carson said. "I'm going to send that [football] to him."
It's difficult to imagine Houston-Carson being any more determined to make plays. The 2016 fifth-round draft pick from William & Mary has made the most of rare opportunities to contribute on defense in recent weeks, producing late impact plays to secure back-to-back wins. Ten days before his clinching interception against the Panthers, Houston-Carson broke up Tom Brady's fourth-down pass with :33 to play to ice a Thursday night victory over the Buccaneers at Soldier Field.
In both instances, Houston-Carson was on the field as a sixth defensive back in place of Deon Bush, who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury. Although he's played predominantly on special teams since joining the Bears, Houston-Carson has kept himself ready to perform on defense if called upon.
"I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn't approach practice like a starter, just because you know how the league goes," Houston-Carson said. "You can think of numerous examples of guys who weren't necessarily starters, and when their time came to get out there, made plays and made good things happen. So for me, for the last few years, that's what I've always tried to do is approach practice like it's a game and try to make every rep count."
Houston-Carson's interception Sunday in Charlotte was his first since Oct. 31, 2015, when he was a senior at William & Mary and his fourth-quarter pick helped fuel a 44-41 comeback win over James Madison.
"There were really two things that happened," Houston-Carson said about his interception against the Panthers. "First of all, our defensive line got great pressure on Teddy and were in his face, so I think it kind of messed up his vision. And then also before the play, Eddie [Jackson] and 'Gip' [Tashaun Gipson Sr.] did a good job of disguising the coverage.
"When it was in the air, I was just thinking, 'Catch the ball, just catch it.' Afterwards, it just felt like a movie kind of; things slow down and it was just surreal. It was nice that we knew all we had to do was take three knees and I'd get to celebrate with my teammates."
Houston-Carson has produced two of the biggest plays of the season for the Bears, who are in first place in the NFC North with a 5-1 record. But he's not interested in patting himself on the back.
"The most rewarding thing is that we won those games," Houston-Carson said. "If I would have made plays and we would have lost, I don't think I would feel the same sort of way as I do now. Obviously, winning is the best thing. But it has been good for me. Really the way I look at it is I just want to do my job to help our team win, and we have such a great defense that when I get out there, I want to uphold that standard that we have, so I've just been happy that at least the last two games, I've been able to help."
Those who have worked with Houston-Carson are happy for him, but not surprised by his success. After the win over the Panthers, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks tweeted that the safety is "one of the most disciplined players I've ever seen." Former Bears teammate Adrian Amos, who's now with the Packers, quote-tweeted Hicks and added: "Happy for my boy. Nobody works harder."
Bears coach Matt Nagy feels the same way about Houston-Carson.
"I'm really proud of him; what a role player for us on this team on defense and special teams," Nagy said. "He's just a quiet leader that does things the right way. He's come up so big in these situations, and that's what it's all about."
Although Houston-Carson has played sparingly on defense in the NFL, he has remained confident in his ability to contribute.
"I've never doubted my playmaking ability and my ability to play the defensive side of the ball," he said. "All you need is an opportunity, and so for me, my whole thing the last few years has just been to keep preparing and keep working hard, and then that way when the time comes, I could be ready for it. You hear about all types of stories of people who you see making plays or whatever it is and nobody knows about all the time they've been putting in. They just see that moment. So I just have been trying to just prepare and pray and hope that when that moment comes, I'll be ready for it.
"I also don't want it to seem like I've arrived at all or anything like that. I've made a couple plays the last two weeks. It's a long season and we've got a lot more football to play, and I'm just hoping that I can continue to prepare and practice hard. That way if my number's called some more, I'll be able to continue to help our team win games."