Growing up poor with an abusive father, San Francisco 49ers star Patrick Willis deserves credit for not only becoming arguably the best linebacker in the NFL, but for overcoming adversity as a human being.
In the latest episode of ESPN's E:60, Willis details a childhood that included beatings from his father, Ernest. He also talks about giving the money he earned to Ernest and watching him blow it on drugs.
It's easy to look at Willis' strength, or instincts, or mind-numbing pursuit of the ball carrier, and see why he would be a dominant linebacker in the NFL. But it's what's inside that has given him the drive to become an even better player.
Said former head coach and Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary:
He's the guy who has every reason to quit, every reason to hate everybody. Greatness is not about the guy who has all the skills and talent. Greatness is measured by the setbacks you had in life. Have you been able to fight through them and become stronger?
We become so dazzled by the athletes of the NFL, their brute strength, their blinding quickness, their explosiveness, that we forget that they will never live up to their potential without determination and dedication.
Willis has all of this, and that's why he's become the force of the 49ers, a team that went 13-3 this season and just knocked off the high-powered New Orleans Saints in the playoffs.
In his first four seasons, Willis racked up at least 128 tackles. This season he posted 97 tackles, two sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception despite being paired with a better linebacking corps that included All-Pro NaVorro Bowman. He's not only the same outstanding tackler and run-stuffer, he's become considerably better against the pass in coverage.
There are numerous inspirational stories throughout the NFL. Willis is another one of these stories and, hearing his story, it's hard not to root for the guy.
Given the circumstances of his youth, Willis could have easily quit early. He could have easily slipped down the wrong slope. Instead, Willis used it as motivation to not repeat the same mistakes his father made. Now he has a mansion and a place for his family to visit.
Willis' play on the field has been spectacular, but as the 49ers get set to clash with the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game, it's his heart that stands out the most.