NEW ORLEANS — Imagine “The Blind Side” transported from Memphis about 100 miles to the northeast to the small town of Bruceton, Tenn.
And instead of a well-to-do family taking in a football prodigy, it was a young basketball coach and his wife, also a teacher, opening their home — a four-bedroom, two-bath singlewide trailer — to four children.
And while both protagonists went to Ole Miss, where they were teammates for two years and became first-round draft picks, one is being proclaimed as the game’s best middle linebacker — or will be as soon as his idol retires after Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII, while the other lost his “blind side” role this season.
Meet the San Francisco 49ers’ Patrick Willis, whose story could well have made a better book and movie than the original. That story introduced the world to Michael Oher, who’s now right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens after switching from the left side at the start of the playoffs.
“Well, I love Big Mike like a brother,” said Willis, who no doubt will collide with Oher come Sunday. “And the movie was one of the best ones I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if my story is better or not. We’ve been through a lot of the same situations, for sure.”
Except that Willis may have had it harder.
His mother walked out of the lives of Willis and three younger siblings years ago. His father was drug-dependent and abusive, so much so that the state was ready to place the children — Patrick, younger brothers Orey and Detris and little sister Ernicka — in foster homes, separate ones if necessary, before Patrick’s senior year at Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central High School.
Enter Chris and Julie Finley, then only 25 and married for a year. They agreed to take in the kids while their father received counseling. He never did, and the arrangement became permanent.
With the help of the Finleys, plus several others in the community, Willis and his siblings persevered.
Passed over by his home state Tennessee Volunteers because he played the equivalent of a Class 1A school in Louisiana, Willis received a late scholarship offer from Ole Miss, where he became a Butkus Award winner. And in the NFL, Willis has emerged as the game’s best inside linebacker with five All-Pro selections, including this season.
That’s only two fewer than the Ravens’ Ray Lewis, who is finishing his career Sunday after 17 seasons.
Small wonder there’s been plenty of “passing-the-torch” talk this week. The fact that Willis, by coincidence also wears No. 52, fuels it even more. Plus, in another made-for-the-big-screen moment, Willis refers to Lewis as “Mufasa” and in turn Lewis calls Willis “Young Lion.”
“I’ve always tried to play with the kind of passion I’ve seen Ray Lewis play with,” Willis said. “And I can only hope that when people see me play they go, ‘Wow, that’s a bad dude.’ ”
Not that Willis has any of Lewis’ early baggage, despite some hard times growing up. He speaks often about the role of faith in his life.
“My grandmother would take me to church all the time,” he said. “She’d say, ‘Baby, no matter what you do, always keep your hand in God’s hand. That’s something I don’t push on anybody, because we all have our own beliefs. But I believe, and I have faith that he is why I am what I am today.”
Willis is a “bad dude” on the field, ranging from sideline to sideline much as his first linebackers coach with the 49ers, Mike Singletary, did back in the day.
“He’s the closest thing to Ray’s level,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said. “He played the game the right way. He’s a tenacious player. I have a lot of respect for that guy.”
Added Brian Billick, Lewis’ coach for nine years and now a Fox analyst: “You’re talking rare air with Ray Lewis, so Patrick’s got a ways to go. But Patrick Willis is a special player.”
Willis has been that throughout his high school, college and pro career, but for a time it looked like he might go down as an excellent player who never tasted team success.
His freshman year at Ole Miss was 2003, when Eli Manning was a senior and the Rebels went to the Cotton Bowl. But three straight losing seasons followed.
Drafted with the 11th pick in the first round by the 49ers in 2007, Willis was one of the few stars on teams that won five, seven, eight and six games in his first four years.
“I was getting to the point where I was just hoping to get one winning season,” said Willis, who signed a five-year, $50 million contract extension in 2010 rather than seek a better team through free agency. “But I felt that the Lord has blessed me when I became a 49er, and I prayed that I was making the right decision to stay with them because things were going to get better.”
It took a coaching change — the fifth for Willis in college and the NFL — when Jim Harbaugh replaced Singletary in 2011.
“Coach Singletary taught me so much,” Willis said. “But coach Harbaugh came in and showed us how to fight out situations where we’d probably have lost in the past.”
The result was a 13-3 season in 2011 and a victory against the Saints in the divisional round before a loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. This time, San Francisco is in the Super Bowl for the first time in 17 years.
“As a kid, you grow up hoping to have the opportunity to play in this game,” he said. “For four years, we were at home watching the other teams in the playoffs. Last year. we were one win away. To be able to be here is something special.”
Willis has come a long way, but he hasn’t forgotten where he started. The Finleys, who now have two young children of their own — “We did the teenagers first,” Julie told USA Today — are Willis’ guests for Super Bowl week.
“Nobody knows the whole story,” Willis said. “Growing up, I always loved the story of Cinderella. That’s how I’ve felt about my life sometimes.
“I will be forever grateful for what they did for us.”
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