"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.
September 14, 2008
Patrick Willis, the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007, was in his second season when he recorded his first-career interception and established a 49ers team record.
The Seattle Seahawks jumped out to a 20-13 advantage over the 49ers at Qwest Field and threatened to put more points on the board in the third quarter. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck directed his club to San Francisco's 25 yard line then fired a pass to wide receiver Billy McMullen in the left flat. 49ers defensive back Walt Harris deflected the pass and it floated high in the air and into the arms of Willis.
The speedy 242-pound Willis picked it off then weaved his way 86 yards through a flock of lumbering Seahawks linemen. The last man to beat was Seattle fullback Leonard Weaver, who made a desperate dive at Willis inside the 10 to no avail.
"I bet he ran about 120 yards to get those 86," 49ers head coach Mike Nolan said.
Willis' 86-yard interception return was the longest by a linebacker in 49ers history. The pick-six was also a dramatic game changer. Rather than allowing Seattle to take a two-score lead, the touchdown tied the game at 20-20.
"I thank my teammates for blocking for me downfield," Willis said in a postgame interview. "That is one of the things we work on in practice: When someone gets the ball, go block for them."
Willis' interception provided an emotional uplift for the 49ers. Despite enduring eight sacks in the game, quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan rallied the underdog 49ers to a 33-30 overtime win in Seattle. He completed three passes for 46 yards on the game-winning drive and finished the day with 20 completions on 32 attempts for 321 yards and one touchdown.
Kicker Joe Nedney provided the late game heroics. He booted a 28-yard field goal with three seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime, then converted a 40-yard field goal in the extra period to provide the winning margin.
Willis finished the 2008 season with 141 tackles, second best in the NFL, and was named to the Pro Bowl. Between 2007 and 2013, Willis was a fixture at the Pro Bowl. He is the only player in 49ers history to be selected to the all-star game in each of his first seven seasons.
"It's hard to sum up what Patrick meant to that defense," former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "He was the leader, a quiet and respected leader. His work ethic was unmatched. Always prepared. He had everything you'd want in an inside linebacker: strength, quickness, intelligence."
Willis will be inducted into the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame in 2021.