There’s a strong friendship and mutual respect that exists between the defensive captains for both the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.
Willis, San Francisco’s six-time Pro Bowl linebacker, came into the league looking to follow in the footsteps of Baltimore’s 17-year veteran. The two first competed on the field in 2007, Willis’ rookie season. They later met up at the Pro Bowl that season.
“I’m just a big fan of him period,” Willis said on Wednesday, a day before his 28th birthday. “His enthusiasm on the field, just his passion that he plays with, I’ve always been a big fan of those who play with passion.”
Willis’ pre-game speeches have become more emphatic over the years, it also helps that the stakes have been raised significantly.
In Lewis, Willis has a trusted mentor and a person he can relate to when it comes to leading an entire 53-man roster.
The two talked about the handling of Super Bowl attention in a text message conversation earlier this week.
Lewis, who refers to Willis as, “Young Lion,” shared the crux of their back-and-forth.
“He was just really talking about the feeling and how surreal it is for him,” Lewis told the Baltimore media. “Since he has come into this league, I’ve always been (talking to him) – since we met each other at the Pro Bowl and I knew his story and why he wears 52 and all that.”
Willis and his mentor spoke via FaceTime as they watched the waning moments of the Atlanta Falcons-Seattle Seahawks matchup in the NFC Divisional Playoff round. They later exchanged congratulatory messages after both teams advanced to the Super Bowl.
Lewis had a special message for his younger peer.
Now that both players are headed to the largest media availability in professional football, Super Bowl Week, Willis understands the questions that will be coming his way about the Ravens linebacking leader.
Willis also wants to let everyone he’s his own man.
“I know people always want to make comparisons and talk about ‘torches’ and all that, but at the end of the day, I can only be the best player I can be,” Willis said.
Quiet by nature, Willis’ demeanor is a perfect match for the vocal juggernaut, Lewis.
“We’ve become friends in that nature,” Willis explained. “Ray’s one of those guys that loves to gives his wisdom, give his knowledge and I’m the type of guy who loves to listen. Anybody who’s been there and done that and especially someone of his caliber, who’s played a long time and been consistently amazing at what he does – I could sit down and listen all day long.”
Willis, the NFL’s second-most productive tackler since he entered the league in 2007 with 812 tackles, has entrenched himself as one of the NFL’s top defensive performers.
That was the goal when Willis arrived at the 49ers headquarters in 2007 to select his uniform number.
“They had some weird numbers,” Willis recalled, sharing the story of how he chose 52. “I loved even numbers and it was the best number within the numbers they gave me.”
Willis never imagined the comparisons that would come his way, but now as he prepares for the biggest game of his football life, Willis can't help but praise all the contributions of his teammates that have helped him along the way.
“I didn’t know six years later or early on, my play, people would compare myself to him,” Willis said of Lewis. “God has been good. I’ve been fortunate to have played some good football up to this point. I just want to continue that.”
Lewis, although a rival, is rooting for that.
“It’s a special story to become close with him like that,” the Ravens linebacker said. “I always try to throw the smallest tidbits out to help his career out, to help him (know) how to get better… We talk a lot. We talk a lot. But he’s a great, great, great young man, and I’m really excited for him and happy for him as well.”