Everyone with a television has seen “”The Blind Side” or has at least heard the story of Michael Oher, the young man plucked from the mean streets of Memphis and adopted by the Tuohy’s, a well-to- do family who own a string of fast food franchises. Oher went on to college success at Ole Miss and currently plays for the Baltimore Ravens, and there’s no doubt his story is inspirational. But even more inspirational is the story of another former Ole Miss player, Patrick Willis.
Only 130 miles away from Memphis is Bruceton, TN. It’s in a rural area of the middle of the state, dotted with family farms and trailer parks, population just under 1500 people. Patrick Willis and his family were among those living in trailers. A standout athlete at Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central High School, Willis had been raised without a mother, with an alcoholic and abusive father, and with a grandmother who, though loving, had struggled her whole life to eke out a living and thought her grandchildren weren’t grateful for what they had.
When things reached a boiling point after he saw his father strike his younger sister, 17 year old Patrick took things in his own hands. He contacted the authorities who immediately wanted to move the family to a nearby county. His school principal stepped in and asked the high school basketball coach Chris Finley, newly married and only 25, to take the four Willis children in.* At the time, Finley was living in a trailer too, albeit a four bedroom model.
Patrick Willis went on to graduate and be recruited to play for Ole Miss in 2003. Although assured an early draft pick his junior year, Willis opted to stay on and played most of his final season with an injured hand. Even with his bandaged “club”, during Willis’ senior season at Ole Miss, he received the Butkus Award and the Jack Lambert Award as the nation’s top linebacker. Drafted by the 49ers, in his rookie year Willis led the NFL in tackles and earned first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors while being named the 2007 AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Willis has earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in all five years he has played in the NFL. He is the only player to receive the Butkus Award for best linebacker as both a collegiate and a professional.
Patrick Willis is a man who has been racking up sacks, tackles and honors his whole life. But more than that he is an honorable man, who forgives the people who failed him early in life**, is grateful to the folks who helped him when he needed it, and passes on those same values in the way he plays the game and the work he does in the San Francisco community he calls home. He may not have an Academy Award winning movie to celebrate his life, but his legacy is without doubt. He was listed in the Athlon Sports Halloween issue as a “Player to Fear.” But his life shows that he is a player to emulate.
*The Finleys initially fostered four Willis siblings, but eventually two went to another home in Georgia. One of Patrick’s brothers died in a swimming accident in 2006.