Patrick Willis Triumphs Over Tragedies with the 49ers

Derek StephensSenior Analyst IJuly 4, 2008

When Patrick Willis arrived on campus at Ole Miss in Oxford in 2003, nobody had known what this kid had been through.

Nobody expected him to be the leader in tackles in the NCAA as a senior, named to the All-American team, and the winner of the Butkus Award, awarded to the top linebacker in the country, especially when he wasn't even offered by his in-state Tennessee Volunteers.  Not to mention the fact that he would lead the NFL in tackles and be in the Pro Bowl his rookie season. 

That's because they didn't know Patrick.

Patrick Willis grew up in Bruceton, TN with a mother who was never really in the picture and a physically abusive father.  Patrick had brothers and a sister who literally needed him.  At the young age of six, according to Patrick, he would fix breakfast for his younger sister Ernicka and brothers Orey and Detris. 

He had to basically be the father of his younger siblings.  In 2002, when Patrick was around 17, the neglect from the kids had gotten so bad that child services took the children away from his father. 

Ernicka, Patrick's younger sister, had gone to the guidance counselor to complain about physical abuse. The counselor forwarded the information to the superientendant, who led child services to ask a couple, Chris and Julie Finley, school teachers from Bruceton who were close to Patrick, to take in the children.  If they were not able to accept, the nearest couple who could take them in were two hours away.

Chris and Julie couldn't say no.  Chris was the head basketball coach for Patrick's high school, and grew very fond of Patrick being the only freshman on the basketball team.  No one knew the angels they would turn out to be.

Thanks to his strong Christian values, Patrick says he and his siblings still visit his father from time to time and that he has to forgive him.

Tragedy stuck, however, in July 2006, Patrick's brother Detris was swimming with friends when he began to cramp.  He was the biggest there, and they couldn't pull him out.  He died at the age of 17.

Patrick Willis was torn.  Not only did Patrick feel like a brother that day, he almost felt like a father.  He had helped raise his brothers and sisters.  Nobody knew what to say.  The unbelieveable tragedy couldn't have happened at a worse time, a month away from Patrick's senior year at Ole Miss.  Patrick vowed to play his senior year in his brother's honor. 

Patrick did just that, and he played well in his brother's honor.  He led the NCAA in tackles, even playing injured with a taped club on his hand and also gained attention as the top linebacker in the country by capturing the Butkus Award, awarded the Chucky Mullins Courage Award given to the most outstanding leader and talent on the defensive side for Ole Miss the whole year, and named to the All-American team among the short list of accomplishments.

Then, after closing out his career at Ole Miss as the best linebacker in school history, Patrick set his eyes on the NFL. 

On April 28th, 2007, all of Patrick's hard work paid off. 

"With the 11th pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers select Patrick Willis from the University of Mississippi."

Patrick Willis went on to sign a five year $16.655 million dollar contract for the San Francisco 49ers and boy, did the 49ers get their money's worth. 

Patrick Willis ended up leading the NFL in tackles at 174 (10.8/gm) and being one of only three rookies named to the NFL Pro Bowl.  Willis was also named to the NFL All-Pro list and also named to's NEXT Athlete list. 

While all stories are great about people overcoming tough obstacles, none can ignore what Patrick was able to do was beyond extraordinary.  Patrick explained that sometimes he would ask his coach, Chris (who at the time wasn't his adopted father), to study for tests in the locker room after games so he could concentrate on his schoolwork in a stable environment. 

Afterwards, the human angels Chris and Julie, would take him home.  The story of Patrick Willis should not only help us reflect on what a honorable boy and now man Patrick is, but for us to believe that dreams can come true and not to take for granted the life we enjoy in America today.