Year after year, the 49ers bring in new players through the draft and free agency. And even though many of them are very good or suffice in their time with San Francisco, there hasn’t been a talent quite as special as the one the Niners drafted in 2007.
“He’s a guy that has every reason to quit—a guy that has every reason to hate everybody. Greatness is not about the guy that has all the skills and the talent, greatness is measured by the setbacks you’ve had in life. Have you been able to fight through them and grow stronger?” –Former 49ers coach Mike Singletary
Having been raised in Bruceton, Tennessee, Patrick Willis is from a broken home. At age 4, Willis’ mother abandoned him and his three younger siblings. The foursome was left behind with an abusive father, Ernest, a part-time logger.
In 1995, at age 10, Patrick was assisting his father in supporting the family by working in the cotton fields to help pay the bills. It didn’t take very long for him to become head of the household—assuming the responsibilities of both a mother and a father without any real prior knowledge.
Ernest was described as “unreliable” and had notable issues with drugs and alcohol, which often fueled his outbreaks. The children were hit with pots and pans, as well as being struck by closed fists. Patrick described his father as “crazy abusive” to the point where he looked at Ernest like a “stranger.”
In spring of 2001, at age 17, Patrick finally stopped his father from battering his younger sister—a monumental and pivotal point in his life. The children told school counselors that evening about the years of abuse, and a week later, the Department of Child Services came and took Willis and his three younger siblings.
Chris and Julie Finley caught wind of the matter and opened their doors and their hearts to the four teenagers to prevent them from being split up into different foster homes. Chris was Patrick’s high school basketball coach, and the couple was only in their mid-20s. “For the first time in my life, I could be a kid,” said Willis.
Patrick capitalized on this opportunity.
Away from home, Patrick was a star in baseball, basketball and football at Bruceton Central High School. As a high school senior, he was nominated for the state’s Mr. Football Award on both offense and defense, which was a first for any athlete in Tennessee history.
At the University of Mississippi, he started 13 games as a freshman and was a 2-time All-American. In 2007, he was 11th overall pick in the NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He is the NFL’s perennial All-Pro at inside linebacker; a 5-time Pro Bowler with Hall of Fame caliber – Willis has been on a steep ascension ever since overcoming a very trying time prior to 2001.
“When you have a tough childhood, it makes the tough things very normal. ‘I’ve been through this, I can handle the rest, this is just a game,’” Singletary noted in the E:60 documentary.
In each of his first four seasons with the 49ers, he’s made at least 100 tackles and has established himself as the undisputed finest linebacker in the NFL. I’ve often argued that the 49ers defense today is largely a product of the marinating presence of Willis since his inception in 2007.
In 2012, Willis led the league’s No. 1 defense on an amazing run to the NFC championship after being 6-10 the year prior. The 49ers defensive unit was record-setting with Willis at the helm. Considering where he’s come from, Willis has gone further than most men with privileges and advantages afforded to them.
Last season, he helped push his team to within one play of a Super Bowl appearance—a game I’m sure San Francisco would have won had they played in it. One cannot doubt or undervalue the will and the heart of Patrick Willis. There's no limit for Willis, 27, who will win one, if not multiple Super Bowls before he calls it a career.
A Super Bowl victory is the logical next chapter in this amazing and powerful story that is Patrick Willis’ life. For someone who knows when to capitalize on an opportunity and not take things for granted, Willis might make it happen in 2012.
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