It’s not every day you get to talk to your hero.
But there he was, sitting in his RV one afternoon, wearing a white fedora and a huge smile, and vibing over Zoom with someone who idolized him. In fact, he’s the reason I fell in love with football—and more importantly, the 49ers.
I’ll admit I was worried it might not be him on the other end of our Zoom call.
We all hear stories of catfishing. So in a flash of weakness, the thought definitely crossed my mind. But to my absolute honour, our screens connected and Patrick Willis was staring back at me. That moment will easily go down as a Top 10 Greatest Moments of my Life.
In all honesty, it’s currently # 1.
Willis greeted me in a way that made my whole soul stand still. Before our interview even started, I knew my life was about to change for the better.
He first took me back to his hometown of Bruceton, Tennessee, where Willis paints the picture of a young boy tossing the pigskin around his grandma’s front yard with his cousin, Jonte.
“He was a year and some months older than I was,” said Willis. “But his mom and my mom were sisters, and so growing up it was always…I mean, everything he did, I was like the little bro to him.”
Willis, being the oldest of the four siblings, was the caretaker of the household. He carried most of the responsibility and had no one to really mould himself after. And so, Jonte quickly became the “bigger brother” Willis needed.
He’s one of his biggest inspirations in life, actually.
“It was one of those things I’ll never forget, how when we began to get into ball, he [Jonte] would say, ‘P, you gotta work out. P, you gotta get stronger,’” recalled Willis. “And I really didn’t understand what that was…it was him really pushing me.”
Willis also drew inspiration from his uncle, Arthur Willis, who was a professional super middleweight boxer, and his father, Ernest. If you’ve seen ESPN’s E: 60 on Willis, you’re aware of his hardships growing up. Throughout his childhood, “when it rained, it poured.”
Growing up in a rural Tennessee trailer park, Willis began working in the cotton fields when he was only 10 to help support his family. All the while, he and his siblings also endured an abusive, alcoholic father. Despite all of the painful moments, Willis admired his father as an artist.
“My dad had a little gospel-hip kinda-like group. And so, we would go and travel every weekend. Man, we were on the move,” Patrick laughed.
“I just remember being front and center watching [my dad] perform and I was kind of seeing the crowd cheering for him. And then seeing one on the drums, other one is singing, one on the guitar; and…all I could say was, ‘Wow.’ To me, they are special. I thought that was special that you could take a guitar and play it the way they could. And drums. Or sing. If they can do that—be up there being awesome like that—then I can, too.”
In the sixth grade, Willis discovered his awesome.
“I’ve kind of mentioned this story before, but now it’s even more strong and paramount in me. It was my first year having regulation football,” Willis said. “And on game days I had to stay after school because I couldn’t get home in time to get back because my dad wouldn’t be home in time to take me back.”
Willis hid out in library so no one would question why he was still there hours before game time. He’d sneak in and go straight for the VCR tapes, typically the sporty ones, like the Greatest Hits in the NFL.
But one day, Willis reached for a different tape.
“I look over and…I see a VCR tape that says Walter Payton Autobiography.”
Willis admits he didn’t know the difference between an autobiography and a biography at the time, but he was hoping it was the kind where the subjects talk about themself.
And of course, it was.
“I remember watching it and was glued to it,” Willis said about the Walter Payton flick. “And at the very end…I felt like he was like music to me. I mean, the same way that I had always listened to music, is the same way I was listening to this.
“I kept hearing them all say the words ‘work ethic.’ It’s work ethic. It’s work ethic.”
Willis’ dad taught him at a young age “if you want something, you gotta work for it”. And then it all clicked. He started to connect the dots and realized he had a lot of this thing called work ethic.
It was in him all along, he just needed the spark to ignite the fire.
“It was in my gut, it was in my soul,” said Willis. “It was in me.”
Finally, Willis let football consume him. And the adversity in his life only added more fuel to his internal fire—a fire that cleared the way for his many successes on-and-off the football field.
In high school, Willis became the first athlete in Tennessee state history to be nominated for both the Mr. Football Award for a Lineman and for a Back.
“To be there and to share it with my brother, Orey…through all the stuff we’ve been through, him and I have always been here,” Willis crossed his fingers tightly together.
In 2003, Willis committed to Ole Miss and moved away from his family for the first time in his life. He says his freshman year was definitely his fondest.
It was also very humbling.
“So we’re big bad Tigers in high school,” Willis smiled. “And then all of sudden, now you’re in college. And now it’s almost like being a freshman again, being a sixth grader again, being in kindergarten…you have to learn how to play at that level.
“I’ll never forget we were playing against Alabama. My fondest memory was that week, I remember going into my coach’s office. I said, ‘Coach, I want to hit people like such-and-such is hitting people; I want to hit like he’s hitting people.’ So we sat down and watched some film.”
After the film ended, they had the little x’s and o’s talk. But what really struck Willis was when Coach told him to “get down the field and hit as hard as you can whoever’s carrying the ball.”
“So that following Saturday,” Willis recalled. “We were playing against Alabama. First kick off. Boom. I run down the field. Whoosh. And that was the hit that everybody was like, ‘Wait a minute. Who was that?’ That was just an amazing moment.”
Willis excelled as a linebacker for the Ole Miss Rebels. As a freshman, he played in all 13 games. And in his last collegiate year in 2006, Willis led the SEC in tackles with 11.4 per game with a total of 137 tackles. He was SEC Defensive Player of the Year, first-team All-SEC, and first-team All-American. Willis even won the Jack Lambert Award and the Dick Butkus Award—an award that honours the most outstanding linebacker in college football.
It’s no surprise that in the 2007 NFL Draft, with the 11th pick, the San Francisco 49ers selected Patrick Willis in the first round.
“It was a reality come true,” Willis reminisced. “When I got drafted, all that just kind of came back into one moment and I was like, ‘Okay, you got drafted. Now what?’ And that was my focus the moment they actually even called my name.”
Fun fact: Before he was drafted, Willis wasn’t really a fan of the 49ers.
“I hated the 49ers growing up,” Willis laughed.
His brother, Orey, was a huge 49ers fan, which is one of the reasons Willis despised the team. Instead, Willis and other members of his family cheered for America’s team.
“We were Cowboys fans.” Mainly because that was only team they’d get to watch on their limited TV channels.
“I used to be like, ‘I’ll never play for the 49ers.’ On draft day, that was the team that called,” said Willis. “I just never forget just centering myself like…this is where it’s going to start for me. Time to go make it my home—my new home.’”
Willis embraced the 49ers with open arms and in his first NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals, he made 11 tackles, including 9 solos and a forced fumble. San Fran edged Arizona 20-17 in truly dramatic form.
# 52 finished his rookie season with an NFL-leading 174 tackles, though the team credits him with over 200.
Willis gave every piece of his body and soul to football. As his career with the 49ers took off, his leadership within the team also began to take shape.
“The relationship with Navorro…I mean, big shout out to Navorro,” Willis said when asked about the dynamic duo in him and Navorro Bowman. “He was a heck of a player. It was amazing to play with him.
“I had that kind of feeling as if he was put here for this exact purpose for me to…grow in many ways because then my role had switched, but it was humbling because now I had to learn how to play the position…all the while admiring that a younger guy was ballin’ out and having just as much fun where I once used to do that. And so, that was the beauty in that whole dynamic duo-ism we had.”
Willis admits him and his cousin Jonte were the original dynamic duo, prior to playing with Bowman.
And I’ll admit, Willis was my secret dynamic duo, too.
2011 was the first real year I started to really watch football. My boyfriend at the time was a big San Fran fan, so he opened my eyes to the team and I never looked back—even after a painful breakup that left me with permanent scars on my mind and body.
Throughout our relationship, I clung to football with the little strength I had left in me. It was my escape from the dark reality of an abusive boyfriend who took out his insecurities on me, both mentally and physically. Since I was afraid to leave, I used football as a way of connecting with him in hopes of having more happy days than bad ones.
I don't know how I survived the bad ones.
After ESPN aired Willis’ E: 60, I felt more connected to the star athlete than ever before. He was no longer Patrick Willis, 49ers legendary linebacker.
He was Patrick Willis, my hero.
We had both been through an abusive relationship, yet rather than let his past weigh him down or define him, Willis set goals for himself and worked so damn hard to accomplish them. Regardless of every obstacle along the way, he made it to the NFL, just like he imagined he would.
And even though the rodeo is over, Willis has no regrets.
“This was never the end all be all.”
He had given himself two options: be a professional athlete or get a regular job and work until 60 or 70, then get a “John-John boat” and fish the Tennessee river.
“I said, ‘I’m going to give myself no option. I’m going to do this first one.’” The rest is history, of course.
Post-NFL has been just what the doctor ordered, though.
“I never really could be in the present because I was always trying to obtain what I had ultimately was able to do. And so now, I’m just sitting in an RV and whatnot, I guess I could be in the house, but I’m just sitting in the RV,” Willis grinned.
Retired life looks great on him.
I was in awe of our conversation. Have you ever felt like a moment was crafted just for you?
I felt that with Willis.
I’ve dealt with doubters my entire existence. I’m sure a lot of people have. But this past year has been beyond challenging. So when Willis agreed to our Zoom interview, my soul lit up in colours I never knew I had inside of me.
Recently, people have told me that women do not belong in sports. Someone even lectured me and said people who haven’t played the sport don’t deserve to report on it. No joke.
While others tried to hold me down, Willis metaphorically grabbed my hand and showed me that I am worth it.
In a way, his interview saved me.
I ended our nearly one-hour conversation with a question that hits very close to home for this reporter: "If you had a daughter, or even just to myself, what kind of advice would you say to other people out there going after a dream that maybe others say that isn’t something that they could ever accomplish?"
His response was beyond perfect:
“I would tell her to pursue you,” Willis gleamed. “Because at the end of the day, it’s only going to be you looking at you. If you’re going after something for a job, just for the job of it, then you are putting your happiness and you are putting your joy in something outside of you that someone can ultimately take away from you. Or say that you are not worthy to have. And you will allow that to dictate and define who you are and what you are. And what you want to do as a human being, I would say. And I would tell you never give anyone that much power to make you feel like anything less than what you want to go after.
“In the deepest of you, pursue all of you. Remember, you are the hero of your journey," Willis chuckled.