A Fan's Perspective on What Patrick Willis Means to the San Francisco 49ers
If you happen to find yourself searching for one perfect word to describe five-time All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis at this point in the 27-year-old's life, look no further.
Mike Singletary has already found it.
Merriam Webster might tell us that "overcomer" isn't a real word (as does my spell-check), but I dare you to describe this man in a more fitting manner without using your space bar.
And if you're still looking for one word to best describe what No. 52 means to the San Francisco 49ers, I'll give you one 10-letter pronoun that can be located in any dictionary.
When the 49ers selected Willis with the 11th overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, the entire 49er faithful knew the franchise landed a truly special talent. That much was unmistakable.
What may not have been so readily apparent is what a capable on-field leader the Ole Miss alum would immediately prove himself to be.
From the first time he suited up in red and gold, Willis provided the 49ers defense with an amount of leadership that can't be measured. He may not be as vocal and emphatic as Ray Lewis, but P Willy undeniably shows the way with his play.
He is truly a master of his craft, one with no weakness.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. put Willis' impact into perspective in an article from early 2011 where ESPN's NFL writers power ranked the NFL's top 10 linebackers (Willis was No.1):
Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Patrick Willis, and that is saying a lot. He is as good a linebacker as Peyton Manning is a quarterback, as Andre Johnson is a receiver, as Adrian Peterson is a running back. He has no weaknesses.
Coming out of the draft, scouts expressed a small concern in Willis' ability to drop back into coverage on passing downs. It wasn't necessarily viewed as a weakness, but was often noted due to the fact that his remarkable all-around abilities simply left nothing else to criticize.
Now, the 49ers coaching staff relies on Willis in pass coverage more than ever before. Willis' unmatched combination of size and speed allows him to adequately cover the game's premiere tight ends so effectively that the team was willing to part ways with former 49er OLB Manny Lawson, who formerly fulfilled these duties.
Sure, we don't see Willis unleash his wrath on opposing quarterbacks as often as we'd prefer, but there's no denying how valuable his abilities to cover pass-catchers like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Pettigrew really are.
In 2011, Willis defended (or deflected) 12 passes. No other linebacker totaled more than nine passes defensed on the year.
His prowess in the secondary played a monumental role in helping rookie phenom Aldon Smith pile up 14 sacks as he narrowly missed out on NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, an award Willis claimed in 2007.
In five NFL seasons, No. 52 has earned more individual accolades than we can count on two hands. He's already been named to twice as many First-Team All-Pro squads (four) than 49er great Ronnie Lott (two) had made after his first five seasons for the Red and Gold.
If Jon Beason hadn't edged him out by one vote in 2008, we'd be looking at a five-time First-Team All-Pro.
The great thing, though, is that individual honors are not where Willis' interests lie. His 692 tackles, 18 sacks and eight turnovers (interceptions and fumble recoveries) in 76 career games have little to do with why he shows up on Sundays.
He's a team-first player in the entirety of its meaning, and he exemplifies what a San Francisco 49er is and should be day after day—on and off the field.
He's also a provider, in every sense of the word.
On gamedays, Willis provides the 49ers with the hope and confidence necessary to survive a 60-minute war on the gridiron.
Outside of football, he consistently provides for his family, a self-appointed responsibility he overtook from his father at the young age of 10.
The oldest of four siblings, Patrick had no other choice. At age four, Pat, his two brothers and sister were abandoned by their mother and left to be raised solely by their father, Ernest, who was abusive and overcome by drug addictions, often swindling Pat out of his hard-earned money just to feed his habits.
For those who aren't familiar with the linebacker's riveting life story, this E:60 documentary is a must-see.
One of the many obstacles Willis has overcome in his life, he lost his youngest brother, Detris, who drowned in a quarry in 2006 while swimming with friends.
Willis, a junior in college at the time of his brother's death, now sports a tattoo on his forearm that reads "You're With Me Baby Boy," referring to Detris.
For as passionate as Willis is about inflicting punishment on the football field, he's equally passionate about spreading happiness off of it. He's the ultimate caretaker.
His younger sister, Ernicka, even sends him father's day cards as a token of appreciation for the care and guidance he provided to his siblings for as long as they can remember.
Willis is the exact type of selfless player and person every coach (not just in football) should point to when trying to direct a prima donna onto a more team-oriented path.
In his first five years in the league, Willis has earned more individual honors than any me-first football player could ever dream of, and done so without even once placing himself in front of his team.
Will Patrick Willis go down as the best defensive player the 49ers have ever had?
At his high school in Bruceton, Tenn., Willis became the first player in the state ever to earn Mr. Football honors for both offensive (running back) and defensive (linebacker) play.
He was a two-time First-Team All-American at Ole Miss, two-time Butkus Award winner and three-time NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year.
Yet, all he wants to do is win. Now, the 49ers are doing plenty of that. And Willis' presence is shining through in more ways than we even know.
Willis has always been a weight room freak, devoting hour after hour to his body in efforts to remain the among the game's greatest. But from a mental standpoint, it's Willis' ability to distribute his knowledge and passion for the game that benefits his team most.
Just ask NaVorro Bowman, who joined Willis on the First-Team All-Pro roster in 2011. Bowman flourished under the tutelage of Willis and former 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes, who showed the young ILB what it takes to be great at the game's highest level.
And Willis, just being the person he is, was more excited for Bowman to earn All-Pro honors than he was for his own selection to the squad.
This from Rob Kroichick of the San Francisco Chronicle:
"It was special to see Patrick's reaction when he heard NaVorro got it," said rookie guard Daniel Kilgore, whose locker at the team's Santa Clara headquarters sits between Willis' on one side and Bowman's on the other. "I was watching them. It was awesome to see Patrick more excited for NaVorro than he was for himself."
Before he even reached the NFL, then-Mississippi head coach Ed Orgeron said it perfectly in the last sentence of these comments on Willis, made in March of 2007 (per Chris Colston of USA Today):
He's been like a coach on the field for us. Patrick leads by example. He is not a big talker. He just gets in there and does his job every day and makes everybody around him better. There will never be another Patrick Willis.
"There will never be another Patrick Willis."
I couldn't possibly agree with that sentence any more.
There are a handful of current 49ers who've overcome adversity in San Francisco to become favorites among the 49er faithful. Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Alex Smith, to name a couple.
But I'm not sure, as tough as this is to say, any 49er means more to this franchise than Patrick Willis, the consummate professional.
The consummate human being.
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