How do you become legendary? How do you create lasting memories on the same field as the Hall of Fame play-makers who came before you?
These are questions Joe Staley deals with as a team leader on the current San Francisco 49ers. The seventh-year pro has already accomplished so much in his career, six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances chief among them. Willis plays at a light level and continues to set the tone for the 49ers on the field. Perhaps most impressive of all is how he does it with such an unassuming approach.
Willis admits he's shy off the field. However, he's a beast when he's roaming the field in a National Football League game. One of the game's top defensive superstars is not about seeking the glory. He's all about sharing the experience. It's hard to not root for No. 52. Everything he does, from the way he respects his predecessors to the way he interacts with fans on social media, is done out of respect.
Willis earns reverence seven days a week. He's one of the best ambassadors the 49ers will ever have.
Gameday caught up with the class act to discuss his legacy, his off-the-field interests and his fondest memories of Candlestick Park.
Who is your favorite old-school member of the 49ers?**,
That's a tough one. I'd probably say Bryant Young. I played with him during my rookie year. I grew up a Cowboys fan, so I didn't know a lot about the old-school 49ers. But getting to play with "B.Y." – I would say he's probably my favorite – him, Jeff Ulbrich and Derek Smith.
What interaction have you had with San Francisco's legendary Hall of Famers, guys like Jerry Rice and Joe Montana?
I played in a golf tournament with Jerry. I've had the opportunity to meet him a few times. I hung out with him during my rookie year at the MLB All-Star Weekend in San Francisco, too. He was a real humble guy, a fun guy to be around. I met Joe at an autograph signing in the South Bay. Just to be able to take a picture with him and have him know a little bit about me and with me know everything about him – it was truly a blessing.
And now you get to play on the same field as those Hall of Famers. Do you have a pregame routine or superstition, something you have to do for every home game at Candlestick Park?
I say a prayer on the 50-yard line. I've always thought of me being here on this earth, being that God created me and He allows me to make decisions on this earth, but yet He's still with me. I always like to get on the 50-yard line because I feel like half of me is me, and the other half is Him. It's the only tradition I try to uphold, a superstition if you will.
Do you have a go-to song, something you always listen to before you leave the locker room?
Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight" – that's definitely one of them. And then I play a song that was played at my brother's funeral. It's called, "Let It Rain." It makes me think of my brother. It makes me think of my brother being my guardian angel. It makes me think of him being with me. When it's time to play, I just let it all out, I just let it rain.
You've always been an open person, always sharing your personal life with fans – even posting cooking pictures on your Instagram account. How much have you stepped up cooking talents in recent years?
Man, I could always cook. My dad, he was a big cook. He taught us all how to do it. But the last couple of years, I learned how to grill. Grilling wasn't one of my strong suits, but now that I've learned to grill, I'd probably say one of my best meals is grilling chicken. I can grill a steak pretty good, too. I love grilling now.
What's your favorite cut of steak?
It's probably a filet. I know a lot of people probably won't agree. A lot of people love a New York steak, but I don't like all that fat and I don't like it to be real tough. I like a filet, a soft piece of meat.
Tell me about your relationship with your pit bull, "Zeus." It seems like you take great pride in looking after him…**
"Zeus" is my boy. I got him when he was eight weeks old here in San Jose. At first, I'm not going to lie, I said to myself, "Man, what are you doing?" It was pretty tough, but I had some people to help me, dog sitters. But I actually found one in particular, the "K9 Club." They helped me a lot with "Zeus." At one time I looked at it like, "What am I going to do?" But then I realized I'm all he's got. I buckled down. I manned up and had to have a lot of patience. But now he's my best friend. That's my guy.
Pat, you get interviewed all the time, but is there anything people miss the opportunity to ask you? Is there something you've wanted to talk about, something about you that never gets asked in an interview?
For me, I really don't like to talk a lot. It's not that I don't like to. I don't think people understand that I get shy. They don't know I'm a shy person. They think my shyness can come off as me being rude or stuck-up. I just get shy. When a whole bunch of people start calling my name, or they'll be like, "Hey, that's Patrick!" I don't want to be rude about it and walk away. I'm not trying to be one of those guys who doesn't care. I'm really not. I'm just a shy person.
It's the last year at Candlestick. What's your feeling on this, and what is your favorite memory of playing there?
My memory of Candlestick will always be the four years of fighting. The four years of not having a winning season – fighting every year and hoping for the opportunity to go the playoffs. In my fifth year, I was able to get a playoff berth. So that's probably my biggest memory of Candlestick. I'll remember the fighting and battling.
At the end of the day, what does Patrick Willis want his legacy to be when he steps away from playing professional football?
That's a good question. I could sit here and answer it all kinds of ways. I would probably want them to know about a guy who came out every week and gave everything he had. A good teammate – it would probably be just that. He came out every week and gave everything he had for his teammates and his fans. I feel like if you're doing that, the rest will fall into place. I tell some of the younger guys, don't worry about chasing money. Chase ball. If you chase ball and you get that, the money will come. That's what I do. I just give everything I've got and I let it all fall into place.
On social media you do such a good job of sharing your life but also listening to the fans. You re-Tweet them if you see fans wearing your No. 52 jersey. What's it like being flooded with support from fans and seeing them in your jersey?
It's truly a blessing. It really is. I was once a kid myself and I remember just being excited to see high school football players play when I was in elementary school. I remember watching college players and watching my favorite football players. Now, being one of those guys who people were your jersey and want to take pictures with you, people are excited to shake your hand and are excited to have a conversation, it's truly a blessing. I just want to show them that I'm thankful and that I care. I'm sorry for those people who I don't get to share their pictures, those I don't get to talk to, or take pictures with them every time. I want to let them know that I am grateful. I do see them, and I do appreciate them.
You could go to any game at Candlestick and could see fans wear any 49ers jersey from Montana to Rice – and you still see so many Willis jerseys out there. That has to feel good, right?
It means a lot. I give all the praise, honor and glory to God. I thank my teammates and all my coaches from over the years, and my fans. They've supported me. They've been fighting with me through all the good and the bad times. I thank them for always believing in me.