HONOLULU – Chicken wings by the pool and making plans for a possible deep-sea fishing expedition later in the week is how Joe Staley celebrated his 27th birthday on Wednesday.
Not only is the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker joined by five other 49ers in town for the NFL's annual All-Star game, but Willis is accompanied by family members in making the trip to the islands.
Granted, Willis and his teammates would much rather be preparing for the Super Bowl having suffered a 20-17 overtime loss in the NFC title game to the New York Giants. Yet, being able to celebrate his birthday with friends and family so soon after a difficult day isn't lost on Willis.
Having to do it in Hawaii isn't bad either.
"It's not," said Willis after a 90-minute practice at Kapolei High School, site of the NFC's first practice of the week. "Hawaii's a great place, great weather and it's really warm right now. I thank God I was able to see my 27th birthday and to be around some of my teammates and some of my friends I've known throughout the league – it's a good feeling."
Perhaps the ultimate respect for the first 49ers player to make five consecutive Pro Bowls to start a career was the outpouring of support from his new teammates on the NFC roster. Many congratulated Willis and the 49ers on a tremendous season, even members of the New Orleans Saints, who were eliminated by the 49ers in the NFL Divisional Playoff round, offered kind words.
"They said they were rooting for us," shared Willis on some of the NFC's practice chatter. "They said, 'We knew y'all we're going to go. We knew y'all had it. The Super Bowl was yours.' But to hear them say that, it means a lot to us because we felt that way. To hear them say it, it means a lot."
Willis, himself, couldn't help but share a little harmless practice banter with Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught a pair of touchdowns in a losing effort against the 49ers.
Although practice was at a teaching tempo for the most part and involved play installation and brief 7-on-7 passing drills, Willis couldn't resist sharing insight with his new teammates as to how to defend New Orleans unique play-maker.
"I was telling somebody, 'Hit this guy right here, don't even let him get off the line,'" said Willis with a big grin. "We laugh about it, because the games are competitive, but off the field, I feel like we're all good people. All the best are out here."
All the best includes five other 49ers on the NFC squad. Seeing so many red and gold helmets amongst an NFC roster wearing grey and blue t-shirts out at practice was a great feeling for Willis, who is coming off his first career playoff appearance like many on San Francisco's roster.
"I remember coming here and it was just myself," Willis shared. "Now to come here and have the guys we have, Joe Staley, Justin Smith, David Akers, Brian Jennings and Andy, my man, Andy Lee… To see that (now), it's a good feeling. I'm blessed."
Humble and committed to succeed as ever, Willis made it clear how appreciative he was for all the people who've helped him get to this point of his career.
"I'm thankful for everyone who voted for me to get here over the past five years," Willis said. "To be here, it's something I don't take for granted."
Staley's Pro Bowl Debut
While Willis is used to the Pro Bowl scene by now, tackle Joe Staley is the only San Francisco representative making his debut. Willis, however, made sure to give tips to his Pro Bowl rookie teammate.
"He's got it made," Willis said. "This practice was a lot easier than I remember it. It was more laid back than the ones I remember. He got off easy. They're getting soft on us over here, which I like."
As for Willis' tips for Sunday's game:
"It's not going to be something all-out crazy," Willis added of his pre-Pro Bowl chat with Staley. "In the game we compete and we really turn it up in the end because we want to win. Other than that, just have fun and enjoy this time."
Staley seemed to be enjoying everything about his first Pro Bowl experience, even reconnecting with former teammates: "It feels cool to be out here with a lot of the guys you watch on TV, some old friends that you've played with like Mike Rob (Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson). It's good to hang out with everybody, see everybody, it's a great time." For more on Staley, check out our TV49 package from Wednesday.
Pro Bowl Etc.
Former 49ers great Merton Hanks was in attendance for the morning practice session. Hanks currently serves as the NFL's Vice President of Football Operations.
Justin Smith didn't bull-rush anybody on Wednesday, but he did spend a brief amount of time sharing leverage pointers to NFC defensive lineman Jay Ratliff of the Dallas Cowboys and B.J. Raji of the Green Bay Packers.
Lots of colorful shoes made their way on to the practice field. Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith and quarterback Cam Newton stood out as sporting two of the flashiest sets of cleats on the playing field.
Furthermore, Nike and New Era, who will make team gear and sideline hats for the NFL beginning in 2012, were the companies responsible for making team-issued Pro Bowl gear in 2012.
Jennings, the NFC's need player, didn't arrive with his helmet or football equipment. He did, however, arrive with his wife and young son Jackson, but his equipment will show up in the coming days. Jennings said he would be making a golf outing later in the day with the team's other Pro Bowl specialists.