NEW ORLEANS – The road to Super Bowl XLVII wasn't paved in gold for six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Joe Staley. It wasn't smooth sailing by any means. Perhaps that's why Willis has been sporting a grin during Super Bowl media sessions this week. For all he's overcome in his life, the ultimate stage for professional sports is the perfect environment for one of the National Football League's best players, on and off the field.
Willis isn't alone in feeling the overwhelming joy of reaching the Super Bowl – he's sharing the experience with his guardians, Chris and Julie Finley, teachers from Bruceton, Tenn., who adopted Willis and his three teenage siblings in the spring of 2002.
Chris and Julie, now 36, took on four teenagers when they were just 25 years old and married for only a year. Both teachers, Chris at Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central High School and Julie at an elementary school on the same campus, the Finleys were instrumental in helping the 49ers standout linebacker reach his full potential.
"It's still hard to believe that we're here actually doing this," said Chris, Willis' high school basketball coach at Bruceton. "It won't really hit until kick-off on Sunday."
Willis overcame obstacles throughout his 28 years. When the state of Tennessee stepped in to alleviate a difficult home life for the Willis kids, the Finleys were there to help the family immediately. It turned out, the Finleys became the full guardians of the Willis children.
"I don't like to call them foster parents, I call them my guardians," Willis said this week at Super Bowl media day. "Our case was a rare case. It was only supposed to be temporary and my hat goes off to my guardians. If people only knew the whole story. They hear some of it, they hear a little about it, but you're really never going to know the full, in-depth story as to why I feel how I feel about them."
Willis starred in three sports at Bruceton, averaging 28 points as a junior for Chris' basketball team. Just as Willis started to enter his senior year, tragedy struck. Willis' 17-year-old brother Detris had drowned in a watering hole near town in 2006.
The news was more than devastating to Willis.
"I'll never forget getting that phone call and just hearing about it," shared Willis, who delivered the eulogy at his brother's funeral. "I will never forget just dedicating my senior year to him. I said, 'I'm going to play for us both – for me and for him.'"
Willis finished his fourth year on varsity and received a scholarship to Ole Miss. He went on to become the first person in his family to earn his degree, but never lost sight of his brother's memory.
"Honestly, I really felt that he was going to be a better senior player than I was, that he was going to be a better college player than I was," Willis said. "He had all the better attributes that it took to be an amazing football player, but God had different plans for him."
Willis later had his chest tattooed with a Superman shield, a representation of a shared passion between the brothers.
"He's watching on me today," Willis said. "I feel like everything happens for a reason. Back then, I didn't know why. Sometimes if you try to figure out things and try to make sense of things, and ask why do things happen for a reason, you can drive yourself crazy. But here we are six or seven years later and getting to play in the Super Bowl. There is no doubt that he has been a big part of that. There's no doubt that the Lord let him be my angel."
Overcoming the tragedy at such a young age was difficult, but it helped having the love and support of Chris and Julie. Looking back on their role in Willis' early development, the 49ers linebacker couldn't help but marvel over their selflessness at such a young age.
"For them to have taken us in only being 24, 25-years old, I could not imagine," Willis said. "I could not imagine doing that, but they did it for us. I'll be forever grateful for that."
Willis recalled watching Cinderella as a kid and other stories involving foster parents. He saw tales of guardians looking for financial support. That wasn't the case with the Finleys.
"My guardians," Willis began, "they're the same people that I met 10-12 years ago. The same people I met as they are today.
"We didn't know all this would happen. I never thought I'd become a professional ball player, in their mind, they're thinking, 'We just want to help the kid. He's in a situation where he needs help. We can help him and we want to be there for him.'"
San Francisco's well-known linebacker always keeps in contact with the Finleys – he refers to them as "Mom" and "Dad." When it came time to divvy out Super Bowl tickets to friends and family, the 49ers linebacker with 812 tackles in six seasons, left it to Chris to handle the responsibility.
San Francisco's defensive leader had no problem letting his "Coach" take care of the task.
"They've been there for me through thick and thin, the good and bad, the crazy years," Willis detailed. "To have them here with me this week to enjoy this experience with me is truly a blessing."
Chris sees the experience in a similar light.
"I've said it before; it's just a childhood dream from a kid that didn't have that much growing up," he said of Willis' journey to the Super Bowl. "We're just excited and proud for him and everyone on the team. When he got there it was a struggle and now here they are where every kid dreams about being."
Teammates understand Wills' unique road to Super Bowl XLVII, they also appreciate everything he's done as a leader and captain for the team.
"His struggle has made him successful in life, just what he's been through," said cornerback Tarell Brown, a fellow 2007 draft class member. "Any time you've been through a hardship in life, it can take you in a negative way or a positive way and it took him in a positive way. Pat is a great person, on and off the field."
Just like Willis was soaking up the media spotlight at Super Bowl media day, Chris, too, enjoyed the moment. He's been to several 49ers games, both home and away and has gotten to know Willis' close friends on the team throughout Willis' six seasons in San Francisco.
"I get to see (Pat) all the time, so I'm going to enjoy some of the other guys and maybe mess with him," said Chris, who left his Bruceton team behind for three games to spend the Super Bowl week with Willis.
Willis still remembers the way Chris coached his teams. The play-making linebacker didn't necessarily understand the pass-first offense Chris employed, but he respected his guardian and carried out his role.
"Coach Finley was a good coach, he was," Willis said. "Coach was the type of coach where me as a player, I wanted to run. I wanted to get the ball and be able to shoot it. Coach ran this offense, it was called 'the pass offense' and you shoot on the fifth pass."
Even after shooting on the fifth pass, Willis was one of the most respected players in Bruceton's history.
"He was kind of our go-to guy," Chris said. "People say, 'What position did he play?' I'd say, 'All of them – whatever position we needed.' Whenever we were in trouble, we would just throw it to him."
Willis' accomplished career is not one of legend, however, he still wants game film to share with teammates, mostly NaVorro Bowman, who claims to be the best basketball player on the 49ers defense.
"That's the one thing he always asked for," Chris said. "He told me, 'Coach, you've got to get me some game film from when I was in high school because the guys on the team don't believe I could actually play basketball.'"
Chris is still searching for the tape. He knows how much it means to Willis.
"What do you get a guy who plays in the NFL for his birthday or Christmas?" the basketball coach and math teacher asked. "That's one of the things I'll actually have to find."
Willis is waiting for it, too.
For now, the Super Bowl is filling his mind.
"He's so focused on the game," Chris said. "We went out to dinner (Monday) night and afterwards he went right back to his room…
"I really think Patrick wants to make the most of this opportunity and be as focused and ready to play when the game comes on Sunday."
Willis has been waiting his whole life for a moment like this and wants to cherish it by honoring those who have helped him reach the Super Bowl.