For the first time in his seven-year NFL career, Joe Staley will play in his home state of Tennessee.
"It's going to be fun," San Francisco's six-time Pro Bowl linebacker told 49ers Studios in an exclusive sit-down interview. "It's going to be a blessing. Nothing would be better than leaving there with a win and that's our ultimate goal."
Willis attended Central High School in Bruceton, Tenn., and was named as the state's "Mr. Football" in Class A football. Willis helped his team to back-to-back regional championship and states quarterfinal appearances. The 49ers linebacker was a two-way player for Central, totaling 494 tackles on defense and 56 touchdowns on offense as a running back.
Willis is eager to return to his home state, but remains focused on the task at hand: Beat the Tennessee Titans on Sunday and improve San Francisco's record to 5-2.
"That would make the trip," he said.
Willis is solely concentrating on his own performance. The game's location is a secondary aspect.
"I guess it is a little different because I'm playing in my home state, but regardless for me, if we're playing in Texas or California, I always want to play my best football," Willis said. "It would be even more special if I can go out there and have an amazing game.
"I hope that I will."
Willis attended the University of Mississippi and has not played in his home state since Oct. 1, 2005, when the No. 10 ranked Tennessee Volunteers defeated his Ole Miss squad 27-10. Willis led the Rebels with 14 tackles that day.
It wasn't the first time the 49ers linebacker performed so well in Tennessee. As a two-way star at Central HS, Willis relished having the ball in his hands.
"I always wanted to be where the action was," Willis said. "I felt like I could play defense and offense. I felt like I could return kicks, although my high school coach wouldn't let me do that."
In his current role with the 49ers, Willis is getting back to 100 percent after suffering a groin injury in Week 3. San Francisco's star linebacker returned to the starting lineup last week in a win over Arizona, but admittedly didn't feel quite like his old self.
"To be back out there with my teammates, that's always a blessing, but I'm still battling to get back," Willis said. "Every week is progress for me to work to get back there and hopefully when the time counts, when it all counts, I can be in that tip-top shape, feeling good."
Willis' health will be important this week with his potential coverage matchup with former teammate and Titans current No. 1 tight end, Delanie Walker.
"He's a competitor," Willis said of his friend, turned foe. "He's a heck of an athlete… We're looking forward to the challenge it's going to be fun."
So while Willis is embracing the opportunity to play in front of so many friends and family members this week, the 49ers linebacker hasn't lost sight of the task at hand. San Francisco will embark on a key road trip – a road game in Tennessee – followed by a week-long stay in London to face the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium in Week 8.
"This is work," Willis said. "It's a business. It'll be a good time to experience outside of the United States. I really feel like it's going to be a fun trip, but we have a really important game in Tennessee, they're a great team.
"If we go in there, play great football, and that 'W,' then that long trip to London will be amazing. The whole week will be good and we have to be focused to play the Jaguars. We have the group of guys to make sure business is handled."