Patrick Willis has a special understanding of what it takes to succeed. (Adam Golub)
It's hard to become one of the best players in the NFL at any position, and much tougher to do it over an entire career. But if you ask San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis about toughness, and what can really be hard in life, he can tell you a story that makes the NFL's go-round seem like a day at the beach.
Born into extreme poverty in rural Tennessee, the five-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All-Pro -- he's never missed a Pro Bowl in his career since the 49ers selected him 11th overall in the 2007 NFL draft -- has overcome challenges that would bring most people to their knees. At various instances through his childhood, Willis and his three siblings went without running water and electricity, and Willis' father Ernest was a longtime drug addict who was so abusive, the state of Tennessee had to become involved.
But when you ask Willis about his father, all he'll say is that he's grateful for lessons learned. And that's the most remarkable part of Willis' story -- not only has he managed to avoid the bitterness that would hold him back, he's managed to find a positive in nearly everything that has happened through his life.
Willis first made his story public in an episode of ESPN's "E:60" documentaries last year, and he's reaching out to inspire others once again through his campaign with Duracell. it's called "Trust Your Power," and it's hard to imagine a better subject for that concept.
"I feel it's just the way I was raised. Not having much and not coming from much, I saw my dad go out and work," Willis recently told me. "Despite some of the things he was doing, one of the things my dad told us was that he had to go out and work. He taught us that at a young age -- that if we wanted something, we had to go out and work for it. For me, it was just having that dream of someday getting away and making it out of there and into the pros. I've always wanted to be a professional athlete, whether it was in baseball, basketball, or football -- that was my dream and that was my reality. That was my approach; it had to be more than a dream, and I was always one step closer to reaching my goal."
But as much as Willis has learned to forgive, it's hard to reconcile what he and his brothers and his sister had to go through. Willis would spend summers working at logging camps and in cotton fields to supplement his family's meager income, and that money started draining away as Patrick's father started asking for "loans." Everybody knew where that money was going. That left Willis to act as caretaker for his family, even as he was trying to keep his focus on the dream of life in the NFL. How one small child could grow up and go through such obstacles with such an unstoppable vision boggles the mind, but it certainly makes Willis' amazing focus and productivity on the field easy to understand.
When I asked him what it was that allowed him to stay on the path when so many others might have bailed, Willis responded as if the concept of escape was a foreign one, except if it was earned the right way.
"I never allowed myself to think anything negative like that," he told me. "I just used the circumstances around me as a positive. It would have been so much easier to take the easy way out and say, 'I can't do it,' but I just stuck to live experience. My grandmother was a big churchgoer; she always used to make me and my brothers go to church on Sundays, even when we didn't want to -- sometimes, we would run into the woods. But she was big on that, and we would just pray. Just trust in God, and just believe in Him.
"So, for me, I always had that as my crutch. A foundation, or a tool to use -- to get on my knees at nighttime and pray. I would ask Him to watch over my family, and to give me the strength to do the things I needed to do. And I just always kept that type of mentality, from the time I was yay-high until now. Just knowing that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and sometimes, He may not be there when you want him to be, but He'll always be on time. That's always been the foundation for me, and everything's just worked around that."
Still, there were things that would have tested anybody's faith. Willis' younger brother Detris drowned when Willis was away starring at Ole Miss, and had it not been for the intervention of people who cared enough to take the children in, Willis and his siblings -- Detris, brother Orey, and sister Ernicka -- would have been separated by the foster care system when Willis was a teenager.
Willis kept his eyes forward at all times -- his selflessness was so appreciated by his family that Ernicka still sends him Father's Day cards, and Willis told me that the E:60 piece gave his teammates an entirely new insight into what he had been through. It simply never occurred to Willis to complain about what had happened; there was too much to get done.
"A lot of guys didn't know about my situation," he told me. "A lot of times, that's how it goes. People know you how they get to know you, and what I mean by that is that a lot of the world had just seen me as a football player. People assume that because you do what you do on the field, things must be great, and it had to be pretty easy in my life. What a lot of people don't know is that there are people who go through things and have pain, and they use it as motivation.
"I really think that sometimes, it's hard to go through something and accomplish it and really be good at it if you've never experienced the downfall -- the bad side of things. I thank God that it really opened up people's eyes to why I am the person I am today; going through those things as a kid."
As for how the challenges he's overcome set the tone for his NFL career, that was easy for Willis to express.
"How does it drive me? Just knowing that this game you play -- it's the same game I was playing on backyard football, in high school, in college, and the same game I play now. It's just a higher level. Through it all, it's always been fun. It's a job now, but it's still fun. It's still a place you can go and get away from the world and be a kid again, laughing and enjoying life with your teammates. I've always kept that in perspective. It's the passion I play with.
"I've said before, and I tell people all the time -- I love the game of football so much, that if they told me I could play the game, but I'd have to go work a job at night to have a means of living, I would do that. That's how much I love playing football. So, me having the passion I have for the game of football, just overrides everything.
"I don't know if I answered your question to a T..."
On the contrary. As he has done with most things in his remarkable life, Patrick Willis answered in the best possible way.
About the Duracell "Trust Your Power" Campaign: Consumers can use the #TrustYourPower hashtag on Twitter or share a story of trusting their power on Duracell's Facebook page to trigger a $1 commitment (up to $200,000) from Duracell, providing disadvantaged youth with scholarships to ProCamps, an organization that runs professional athletes' personal sports camps for children ages 7-14. If the goal is reached, consumers will help send 1,000 underprivileged kids across the country to one of the approximate 40 different ProCamps of professional athletes.
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