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Ready for His Ring: Patrick Willis Fueled by Void


There's a moment etched into his memory when David Saunders thinks of Joe Staley.

Following his junior season at Ole Miss – a year in which he recorded 128 tackles and was unanimously named First-Team All-SEC – Willis underwent surgery on a fractured right foot. Saunders, hired during that 2005 offseason to be Willis' new linebackers coach, wondered if the injury would derail his blossoming star's growth.

Willis wound end up missing practice the next spring, but Saunders recalled strolling into the facility early one morning and, to his amazement, encountering the standout back at work shortly after the procedure.

"I remember seeing him in there at 6 a.m., coming out of treatment and going directly into the weight room," Saunders said. "Having such a structured approach in not only the recovery of his foot injury, but also in finding ways to still get better, he wanted to make sure he entered his senior season in optimum condition. I think he accomplished that under challenging circumstances."

That would be an understatement. The ensuing fall, Willis won a triple crown of collegiate honors: SEC Defensive Player of the Year, consensus First-Team All-American and the Dick Butkus Award, given annually to the most outstanding linebacker in college football. A few months later, the San Francisco 49ers selected him with the 11th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.

Yes, a whole heap of talent helped Willis rise to the pinnacle of his profession, but it's his unparalleled work ethic and unassuming ego that the people around him admire most.

"I tell everybody he's a special person," fellow 49ers linebacker Michael Wilhoite said. "You don't find many people like that, who are as good at what he does and are still humble and still willing to help anybody. All the things he has accomplished, you never notice it because he's so humble. He's willing to stick his neck out on the line for anybody to help this team win. It's special being around a guy like that."

Willis doesn't seek headlines – they find him. He's a soft-spoken man who happens to tackle with a deafening thud. This has been the case with Willis throughout his career.

"He never projected himself as a player out there by himself – it was always about the team," said Saunders, now the cornerbacks coach at Louisiana-Lafayette. "I never ever once saw him flinch or give in to anything. He made the best of every situation; just very, very consistent. I don't think I ever saw an inconsistency in him. The other guys looked up to him for that."

A six-time All-Pro and the first 49er to be a Pro Bowler in each of his first seven NFL seasons, Willis has maintained his motivation by looking down the road. Hoisting a Lombardi Trophy would help him join a list of all-time 49er defensive greats with Super Bowl titles, comprising names like Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley.

That's why the lack of a championship is so consuming. The fact that Willis has come so close to a ring only deepens the void. Willis admitted he still thinks about the 49ers narrow loss the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. The occasional television highlights will trigger the memories and induce a cringe, but reflecting on the disappointment also serves some good.

The San Francisco 49ers veteran linebacker has been a star since his arrival to the NFL.

"You have to stay hungry. You can't get this far looking the other way, thinking, 'Maybe it's just not for us,'" Willis said. "We have every opportunity to go after it again.

"For us, we have been close. We did go one year, but that's not good enough. We want to bring it home."

This season, the 49ers face the tall task of making it to their fourth consecutive NFC Championship game. Willis feels the urgency to stop knocking on the door and finally break through, but he tunes out the pressure.

"We understand what's at stake – we understand it's all about winning a championship," he said. "Every year there's going to be opinions, there's going to be criticisms, there's going to be people saying you shouldn't win, but all that doesn't matter. The only thing that does matter is what we believe in this locker room.

"We believe in each other, we believe in what we have here and we just have to go after it one game at a time. If it's easy, we'll take it. If it's not, we'll earn it as we always do."

The word "we" is recurrent in Willis' vernacular. He's the consummate teammate to every player on the roster, not just his fellow veterans.

Take Chris Borland, for example. The rookie linebacker came to the 49ers this spring after being drafted in the third round amid questions about how his sub-six foot frame would translate into the NFL.

Willis, who went largely overlooked as a recruit coming out of a small high school in Tennessee, knows what it's like to be undervalued, so he made it a point to extend an olive branch.

And when a player of Willis' caliber accepts someone, it rapidly trickles down the ranks.

"He's a good teacher and a great teammate," Borland said. "He's welcomed me with open arms and he's taught me a lot. He's got such high character. He's a great guy, very down to earth for being a superstar and I've really appreciated that."

Although part of his lore centers around his passionate pregame speeches, Willis isn't one to frequently raise his voice. He chooses his words carefully so that when he does decide to speak up, his voice carries more weight.

"I think he has a great feel for it. A lot of guys come off as disingenuous when they talk too much," Borland said. "Pat talks just the right amount."

Even when he isn't vocal, Willis' mere presence provides leadership for his team.

"All that little stuff, you learn by watching him," Wilhoite said. "From the littlest details like shuffling instead of crossing over in the box, or playing certain leverage in man (coverage), or how to disguise a blitz in a zone; you can get so much. When you're out there with somebody who is that good, it makes it that much easier."

With NaVorro Bowman out until at least the middle of the season, Willis began 2014 by shifting to the strong-side linebacker position – also known as the "Mike" spot. He'll play alongside Wilhoite, who takes over the vacated "Jack" spot while Bowman heals.

"That's absolutely no regression in his game," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Willis' ability entering his eighth season. "It's not the first time he's done it, so he's ready to do it."

For Wilhoite, the chance to partner up with Willis is something he'll remember beyond his career.

"It's an honor," Wilhoite said. "I know one day I'll be able to say, 'I played with one of the best linebackers ever, period.'"

"One day," however, will have to wait. Winning a Super Bowl is his sole focus for now. And coming off of his sixth 100-plus tackle season, Willis feels as strong as ever. Just ask him.

When a reporter recently questioned if he was still in his prime, Willis answered without missing a beat, "Yes, sir."

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