NEW ORLEANS -- The best linebackers resemble jungle cats on the field. Fast, strong, and predatory, they assess their prey with incredible instincts and hunt without mercy. Super Bowl XLVII features two such linebackers. One, an old lion whose career is coming to a close. The other, a younger lion looking to take his place as the best in the game.
Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis, who will each suit up with jersey number 52 this Sunday, see it in each other. Lewis may go down in history as the greatest linebacker ever to play the game -- his football intelligence and unparalleled competitive spirit mark him as an all-timer, and controversies aside, that's what he's been on the field. Willis, who was 11 years old when Lewis was selected in the first round by the Ravens in the 1996 NFL Draft, may be the best inside linebacker in the game today. Certainly, he's on a very short list that also includes teammate NaVorro Bowman. But as great as he is today, Willis knows who the old lion is in this game, and affords the proper respect in a friendship that has grown over the years.
He calls Lewis "Mufasa." The Lion King.
“Yes, that is what I call him anytime I shoot him a text or meet him," Willis said on Sunday. "I call him Mufasa. That’s from the movie The Lion King. By no stretch of the imagination am I calling him a King. I’m just calling him a King in this game and what it’s about and what he’s been able to do at the linebacker position. He holds that. He holds that crown for the way to play the middle linebacker position and the way it’s been played for a long time. That’s why I call him Mufasa.”
For his part, Lewis respects the young and emerging member of that metaphorical pride.
“That’s a young one, a young lion I talk to a lot," Lewis said on Tuesday. "I’ve been talking to Patrick since his rookie year, and I got into his story a little bit, why he wears 52 and all that. It is actually humbling to know him as a man because when we started talking at Pro Bowls, he would always tell me all of these stories, and we would just have conversations. My job is now, every time I call him, every time I tell him something, I always try to give him good advice, whether it’s to stretch more or to do more to have the longevity that you are trying to have in this game. I think he is one of the up-and-coming young stars who plays the game the right way. He plays the game with a certain passion, and plays with a certain discipline. Honestly, I really enjoy watching the young man play.”
And yes, Willis wears Lewis' jersey number, though the story behind that isn't quite the Disney movie you might expect. Given a choice of numbers when the 49ers took him in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft, Willis, who calls himself "an even-number guy," thought it the best between 51, 52, 57, and 59.
"This is a 49ers jersey, and this is my number," Willis said. "I’ve always answered that question anytime I’m asked I have all the respect in the world for Ray. When I chose this number it was more so the best number they had at the time. When I was drafted, they asked me if I wanted 51 and 57 and 59 or 52. I didn’t want any of those other numbers, and 52 was the best number I felt. I said to myself, ‘Why don’t I get the number 52? I know a guy right now who wears that number who is one of the best. It will be a great number to play up to.’ That’s kind of how it came about.”
The relationship has been beneficial to both men, and it's been a real inspiration to Willis as he has become a cornerstone in one of the NFL's best defenses. Like Lewis in his prime years, Willis plays on a team that is ultimately defined by its defense. And Like Lewis now, Willis is in the Super Bowl because of an expanded and newly explosive offense that can take the governor off whenever it wants to. Both men have been coached by Mike Singletary -- formerly Baltimore's linebackers coach and San Francisco's head coach. Both men have been coached by Vic Fangio -- San Francisco's current defensive coordinator and Baltimore's former defensive assistant coach.
"It kind of started through Pro Bowl times," Willis said when asked about the relationship between the two. "I’ve always been a fan of his and then when I got drafted, being coached by Coach Singletary. I think I played him my first year in Baltimore. I got a chance to shake his hand then, but really got a chance to get to know him a little bit when we were at the Pro Bowl. We sat down outside by the pool, where all the guys hang out, and we just talked. I recall his wise words. He passed some of his wisdom over to me. I’m the type of person, I’m a big fan of those who have been there and done that. Or guys who have done it at a high level consistently. I’ve always had respect for him.”
Comparisons between the two become complicated. As great as Willis is, it's tough to compare anyone to Lewis at his best -- even a cursory look at the tape of his 2000 season would convince you that Lewis was playing a different game than everyone else on the field. And while he certainly and obviously recognizes what Lewis has done for football and everyone who plays his position, Willis is just as eager to make his own mark.
“I’ve never been a man of comparing because we are all our own person," Willis said. We all have something different. We all have something that makes us who we are. As far as comparing, he plays the game with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. I play with the same kind of passion and enthusiasm. I may not get up and go as crazy as he does at times, but inside when a play is made or something is going good, I burn. I burn inside with that same kind of feeling. I just don’t show it as much.”
Super Bowl XLVII is Ray Lewis' shot to go out on top. It's also Patrick Willis' opportunity to set himself up at another level on the national stage. They won't play against each other, of course, but their fortunes are tied together by that unique fraternity.