How a sixth-grade Willis manifested Hall of Fame 49ers career

How a sixth-grade Willis manifested Hall of Fame 49ers career originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

Long before his 49ers days, adolescent Patrick Willis called his shot, predicting the self-drive that earned him a place among football royalty.

When appearing on "The Eye Test for Two" podcast with Clark Judge and Ira Kaufman on Saturday, San Francisco’s most recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee explained what he believed about himself as a sixth-grade student.

“Something happened to me when I was in sixth grade,” Willis told Judge and Kaufman. “I was watching an autobiography of Walter Payton, and I saw all these athletes. And they were talking about Walter Payton. They were talking about work ethic, work ethic.

“I saw [Mike] Singletary, I saw Roger Craig, I saw Jerry Rice. And here I am, in sixth grade, and I just remember when I finished watching… I said, ‘Man, I got this thing. I got this thing called work ethic.' And I said, ‘I’m going to get there. I’m going to be like one of them. I’m going to be awesome. I’m going to be amazing.’ ”

Like his idols growing up, Willis had the “awesome” and “amazing” career he yearned for. In eight seasons, all with the 49ers, he finished with 733 solo tackles, 20.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, eight interceptions and two touchdowns.

Willis’ work ethic was unmatched, as No. 52 was the leader of San Francisco’s defense right out of the gate, earning 2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year nods from the Associated Press and Pro Football Writers of America.

But for No. 52, his career highlight wasn’t finishing with seven NFL Pro Bowl selections or five NFL All-Pro honors. Instead, he relishes a moment where he was side by side with the three players he looked up to in sixth grade, this time as the 49ers captain in 2008.

“Here I am,” Willis recalled. “I’m walking out on the field in 2008, and I’m the captain … I look to my left, and I look to my right. To my right is Jerry Rice, to my left is Roger Craig, and behind me, [Singletary]. I just said, ‘Wait a minute. I remember I saw all these guys when I was in sixth grade watching this autobiography, and here they are now -- to my left, to my right and behind me.’

“It was just a surreal moment of a kid with an imagination that looked at things in a certain kind of way, spoke in ways that most people would say, ‘Get real. Get serious.’ And now, here I am, walking out on the field as a captain of the 49ers with these guys to my left, to my right and behind me.

"Yeah, that’s the moment… It was a great one.”

In the sixth grade, Willis knew he had what it took to become “one of them.”

The 39-year-old did finish like all three of them -- with his likeness soon to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

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