Patrick Willis was one of the greatest linebackers who ever donned San Francisco 49ers red, white, and gold.
Willis overcame adversity and a difficult childhood in his home state of Tennessee. He eventually committed to the Ole Miss Rebels and became one of the SEC’s most ferocious linebackers during his college days from 2003 to 2006.
Willis picked up where he left off when the 49ers drafted him 11th overall in 2007. The 2007 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year became the first player in franchise history to earn seven straight Pro Bowl berths in his first seven pro football seasons.
Willis, a class act on and off the field, was a huge part of the 49ers’ resurgence during the memorable Jim Harbaugh era from 2011 to 2014.
It should only be a matter of time before Willis earns his gold jacket and bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
This is Patrick Willis’s incredible and inspiring football story.
Patrick L. Willis was born to parents Ernest and Loretta Lynn in Bruceton, TN on January 25, 1985. He is the oldest of eight siblings.
Patrick, who eventually became one of the greatest linebackers in San Francisco 49ers history, got his athletic genes from his father, Ernest.
According to The New York Times’ John Branch, Ernest Willis was a star basketball player at his alma mater, Central High School.
Ernest worked a variety of odd jobs including a tenure with the National Guard to feed his large family. Unfortunately, he and Loretta Lynn parted ways when Patrick was just four years old in 1989.
Although Patrick’s paternal grandmother Mary Louise Blankenship lent a helping hand, Ernest told The New York Times in 2012 that he raised his family mostly by himself.
Although Ernest came home tired from work during the week, Patrick remembered tagging along with his dad on his hunting trips and playing basketball with him.
Mary Louise resided in a trailer roughly 50 yards from their house. She worked in surrounding fields pulling and earned between $20 and $30 per day for her efforts.
While Ernest raised his kids, he also struggled with alcohol and drug issues. He even had the gall to ask Patrick to loan him some money he had earned from his logging job that paid him $8 per hour in 1998.
13-year-old Patrick thought the money would help pay his father’s bills. He later found out that Ernest used the money to support his narcotics habit which was spiraling out of control.
“I’ll never forget being so frustrated because it hurt so bad to do all that work and have nothing to show for it,” Patrick told ESPN’s Jeffri Chadiha during his fifth season with the San Francisco 49ers in the fall of 2011.
Whenever Ernest crossed the line in terms of disciplining his children, they went to their grandmother’s trailer and vented their frustrations.
— TNHigh School Sports (@TNprepsports) June 24, 2013
Mary Louise, in turn, told them they would have to deal with their dad themselves. Despite Ernest’s shortcomings, Patrick told ESPN that he considers his father “a good guy” who had issues exorcising his demons.
Willis gave credit to his grandmother for laying his spiritual foundation. Blankenship was a devout churchgoer who reminded her grandchildren to attend communal gatherings and worship on Sundays.
“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,” Patrick told Yahoo! Sports’ Doug Farrar in the fall of 2012. “That’s always been the foundation for me, and everything’s just worked around that.”
Patrick Willis attended Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central High School in his hometown. He played basketball and football for the Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central Tigers. Willis suited up for Tigers head football coach Rod Sturdivant.
Patrick and his younger brother Orey also played for Tigers head basketball coach Chris Finley.
Patrick had always been a serious and mild-mannered student. He hit the books before he took the court for his basketball games. He also used a flashlight to read books inside the team bus, per Branch.
When Willis turned 17 years old in 2002, he finally drew the line against his abusive father, Ernest. He began standing up to his dad when he saw him hitting his younger sibling, Ernicka.
Patrick hit his boiling point and finally reached out to school counselors after his father flew into a rage during a family basketball pickup game.
Before long, Child Protective Services called Sturdivant and informed him they would take Patrick and his siblings into protective custody.
Sturdivant asked them to hold off because he wanted Patrick to finish his senior season with the Tigers.
Sturdivant also asked Finley, a 25-year-old newlywed, for advice. The latter thought it would be in Patrick’s and Orey’s best interest if they stay away from their father, even if it was a temporary setup, per The New York Times.
Finley and his wife Julie soon took Patrick and three of his younger siblings into their four-bedroom trailer.
However, Chris and Julie soon found out that taking care of four foster kids was a daunting task, to say the least. Consequently, Ernicka and her brother Detris soon moved out and stayed with another foster family.
Sadly, Detris Willis perished in a drowning incident when he was a high school student in 2006, per Branch.
Patrick and Orey remained with the Finleys. The two boys considered them their surrogate parents for taking care of them during a critical juncture of their lives.
Chris Finley even helped Patrick during the recruitment process as his high school days in Bruceton, TN neared their conclusion.
Fast forward several years later and Chris also assisted Patrick in his search for an agent as he was about to enter the National Football League.
When Chris and Julie eventually had their own children, they moved into a house with a brick facade. Orey inherited the four-bedroom trailer he lived in with the couple and his older brother, Patrick, several years earlier.
ANSWER: Patrick Willis, who won the Lambert and Butkus Awards at Ole Miss following his time at Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central HS. pic.twitter.com/En4r764ONR
— Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame (@theTSHF) August 1, 2017
As Patrick’s high school football career with the Tigers neared its conclusion, he was an unheralded recruit who earned a three-star rating from Rivals.com and a two-star rating from Scout.com in 2002.
Willis’ first choice was the Tennessee Volunteers. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn’t mutual as Tennessee did not recruit Patrick out of high school, per Stack.com’s Zac Clark.
With the help of his foster parent Chris Finley, Willis eventually committed to the Ole Miss Rebels—the only SEC football program that sent him feelers during his senior season.
However, Willis had another stumbling block—his low SAT scores. Patrick was determined to play for a Division I football program and he told Clark that he took the SAT five times.
Willis finally passed on his fifth try and accepted a football scholarship from the Rebels.
Patrick Willis eventually evolved into one of the best linebackers in Ole Miss football program history.
College Days with the Ole Miss Rebels
Patrick Willis attended the University of Mississippi from 2003 to 2006. Willis, a criminal justice major, played for Ole Miss Rebels head coaches David Cutcliffe and Ed Orgeron.
Willis suited up in 13 games for the Rebels in his true freshman season in 2003. Ole Miss had its best showing in his four-year tenure in Oxford, MS—the Rebels won ten of 13 games and beat the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the 2004 Cotton Bowl, 31-28.
Patrick played at a high level and become an All-SEC honorable mention selection as a sophomore in the 2004 NCAA season.
Regrettably, Ole Miss regressed and won just four games in Cutcliffe’s final year as Rebels head football coach.
Willis was the epitome of toughness as his college football career at Ole Miss progressed.
Patrick played through pain during his junior season with the Rebels. He had a fractured middle finger, a sprained left knee, and a partially-torn right shoulder.
Nevertheless, he played through them and had 1.5 sacks, 15 tackles, and 2.5 tackles for loss in a pulsating 13-10 victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2005 NCAA season.
Willis’ 12.8 tackles per game led all SEC defensive players and ranked sixth in the country that year. He also earned the first of his two consecutive All-SEC and All-American selections following his junior campaign.
Despite Willis’s outstanding 2005 NCAA season, the Rebels floundered with a 3-8 win-loss record in Ed Orgeron’s first year as their head football coach.
Just when Patrick Willis was about to enter his senior season at Ole Miss in the fall of 2006, unspeakable tragedy struck.
While Willis was rehabbing his foot in the Rebels’ training room, one of his brothers called him and said their brother Detrick drowned.
An incredulous Patrick told his brother to look further into the details and to call him with accurate information.
While Patrick struck up a conversation with his Ole Miss teammate Jamarca Sanford in the training room, his brother called him again. He confirmed the news that Detrick had tragically passed away.
norightstoimages 📷 pic.twitter.com/0GC1tzENwh
— Patrick Willis (@PatrickWillis52) September 6, 2022
According to Tuscaloosa News sports writer Christopher Walsh, Detrick Willis drowned after struggling with leg cramps in a swimming hole in Camden, TN. Detrick was swimming for three to four hours before his legs finally gave out.
Patrick immediately flew to his home state of Tennessee and delivered his younger brother’s eulogy. Patrick’s head football coach, Ed Orgeron, attended the funeral.
Willis’ maturity impressed Orgeron. The latter thought his senior linebacker handled the situation with uncanny toughness.
Patrick thought that moving forward with his promising football career was the best way to honor his late brother, a high school fullback who wore his No. 44 jersey inside his casket.
“I know that my brother would have wanted me to continue,” Willis told Walsh in the summer of 2006. “We always talked about going on no matter what the circumstances.”
Willis used his brother as motivation to finish his stint on the college gridiron on a strong note.
Patrick had 3.0 sacks, 137 combined tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, seven passes defensed, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery as a senior in 2006.
Willis won a slew of accolades following his senior campaign, including SEC Defensive Player of the Year, All-American, and All-SEC honors.
Patrick also won the Jack Lambert Trophy and the Butkus Award as the country’s best linebacker in the 2006 NCAA season.
Willis also received the Chucky Mullins Courage Award as the Rebels’ best defensive player and the Conerly Trophy as Mississippi’s best college football player that year.
Willis flourished inside the classroom. He also earned Academic All-SEC honors and won the 2007 Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award.
Despite Willis’ best efforts, Ole Miss wasn’t much better in Orgeron’s second year at the helm. The Rebels won just four games and did not play in a bowl game for the third consecutive season.
Willis finished his four-year stint with the Ole Miss Rebels with 6.0 sacks, 355 combined tackles, 33.0 tackles for loss, seven passes defensed, one interception, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery.
Patrick’s 355 total tackles are the sixth-most while his 33.0 tackles for loss are tied for fifth-most in Ole Miss football program history, per The Oxford Eagle.
The stage was set for Patrick Willis to take the National Football League by storm and eventually become one of the best linebackers who ever wore San Francisco 49ers red, gold, and white.
Pro Football Career
The San Francisco 49ers made Patrick Willis the 11th overall selection of the 2007 NFL Draft.
The fact that Willis, a lightly-regarded three-star recruit out of high school, had officially entered the NFL ranks had not sunk in until his first rookie minicamp in the summer of 2007.
As Patrick was about to take the field, he saw a “49ers Way” sign and he knew that he had finally made it. He told himself that he was going to give it all he had, per 49ers.com senior reporter Kelana Martin.
Willis showed the 49ers that they made the right decision in taking his name off the draft board several months earlier.
Willis started all 16 games for 49ers head coach Mike Nolan and had 4.0 sacks, a career-high and league-best 174 combined tackles, eight tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery in his rookie year in 2007.
Willis promptly earned 2007 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He also became the first player in 49ers franchise history to suit up in the Pro Bowl in his first seven NFL seasons, per Martin.
Reflecting tonight. I think about my junior year of college. Will I enter the draft? Coming back my senior was the best decision for reasons that are to much to write. In believing, faith, and works maybe I just got lucky 🍀#Grateful 🌟 pic.twitter.com/ajHKgNas6u
— Patrick Willis (@PatrickWillis52) December 9, 2022
Willis also earned five First-Team All-Pro berths and one Second-Team All-Pro selection from 2007 to 2012.
Although Willis took the NFL by storm, San Francisco was a mediocre team that averaged barely seven wins from 2007 to 2010.
It wasn’t until former Stanford Cardinal head football coach Jim Harbaugh took over prior to the 2011 NFL season that the 49ers rekindled their past greatness.
Under Harbaugh’s leadership, San Francisco won an average of 12 games from 2011 to 2013. The 49ers made deep postseason runs each time and even reached Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens.
Baltimore emerged victorious 34-31 In a game dubbed the “HarBowl” because it pitted Jim against his older brother and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.
As Patrick Willis reached the pinnacle of his legendary career with the San Francisco 49ers, his once-strained relationship with his father Ernest had improved considerably.
In fact, Patrick gave his dad a ticket to watch the 49ers’ last game of the 2011 NFL season against the St. Louis Rams.
“It’s getting better and better and better,” Ernest Willis told The New York Times in January 2012. “It all worked out. We ain’t got no problem.”
Patrick echoed Ernest’s sentiments. The former recalled his dad telling him, “I love you, son,” for the first time when he was 23 or 24 years old.
“I was in so much shock I couldn’t even cry,” Willis told ESPN in the fall of 2011.
After Willis had 34 combined tackles, three passes defensed, and one interception in the 49ers’ first six games of the 2014 NFL season, a nagging toe injury that dated back to his days at Ole Miss forced him to sit out San Francisco’s final ten games that year.
Willis, who once fractured his hand in a game, had surgery the following day, and played with a cast on Thursday Night Football, thought his feet were damaged goods at that point in his eight-year pro football career.
“I know I no longer have it in these feet to go out there and give you guys that kind of ‘wow,'” Willis said at the time (via the Jackson Free Press’ Bryan Flynn).
Patrick Willis retired following the 2014 NFL season. He finished his outstanding NFL career with 20.5 sacks, 950 combined tackles, 60 tackles for loss, 41 quarterback hits, eight interceptions, two pick-sixes, 53 passes defensed, 16 forced fumbles, and five fumble recoveries.
According to Yahoo! Sports’ Frank Schwab, Willis had approximately $21 million remaining on his five-year, $50 million contract at the time of his retirement.
The 49ers had a mediocre 8-8 win-loss record in the 2014 NFL campaign. Willis’ final pro football season coincided with Jim Harbaugh’s last as San Francisco’s head coach. Harbaugh accepted an offer to become his alma mater, the Michigan Wolverines, head football coach on December 30, 2014.
During Patrick Willis’s time in the Bay Area, he did various charitable endeavors with his fellow 49ers linebackers. They started a tradition of visiting children’s hospitals when Takeo Spikes signed with the team in 2009, per the 49ers’ official website.
Willis was a class act on and off the field as a member of the 49ers. He once gave an autographed cover of the team’s Gameday Magazine to a reporter during the 2013 NFL season.
That same reporter then told Willis that he was his nine-year-old nephew Noah’s sports hero. Willis then asked the beat writer if he could record a message for the child on his cellphone. It was a moment both uncle and nephew never forgot.
Willis loved singing R&B songs inside the locker room if nobody was within earshot. He also became an avid fisherman whose love for the sport reached new heights when legendary wideout Randy Moss— who also loves to fish—played for the 49ers in 2012.
Willis also spends time fishing with his neighbor and former San Jose Sharks forward Owen Nolan, per 49ers.com.
Patrick Willis currently resides in the Northern California area.
Willis met his future business partner, Eren Niazi, in the San Jose, CA area in late 2014. A source told Inc.’s Salvador Rodriguez that Niazi easily charmed the 49ers Pro Bowl linebacker with his business acumen.
Before long, Niazi hired Willis to work at his tech startup, Open Source Storage, several months later. Willis embarked on his new tech career just several weeks after he hung up his cleats in the spring of 2015.
According to Rodriguez, Niazi appointed Willis as a board member and executive vice president for partnerships. One of Willis’ responsibilities was interviewing potential new employees.
Willis quickly hit it off with his new co-workers. It was eerily familiar to how he got along with his San Francisco 49ers teammates during his eight-season pro football career from 2007 to 2014.
“Patrick is the greatest guy I’ve ever met,” former Open Source Storage engineer Gracie Gato told Inc. “He’s the sweetest guy in the world.”
However, Gato did not see Niazi’s treatment of Willis in the same light. She saw Niazi follow the former 49ers linebacker wherever he went in the office and flaunted him to his other co-workers. Gato was disgusted at the sight.
Plus, Niazi seemed to give Willis preferential treatment—Gato told Rodriguez that he had volatile mood swings around his other co-workers. He also hired and dismissed employees whenever he felt like it. Niazi also either docked or raised their pay on a whim.
Gato soon found out that the company was a fraud because Niazi had no product to market and sell to begin with. It turned out the employees were getting their paychecks from the hard-earned money that Willis invested in the company.
“I knew my paycheck came from Patrick. I refused to accept another dollar,” Gato told Rodriguez. “I knew his fate—another broke NFL player—I couldn’t deal with that.”
Gato resigned from the company and reached out to the FBI as soon as she found out about Niazi’s fraudulent activities.
Willis eventually filed several lawsuits amounting to $3 million against his former business partner. They claimed that Niazi deceived him into putting his money in Nevada-registered companies.
Willis’ full ownership claim included six properties in the Santa Clara and San Benito areas that Niazi previously purchased via the Nevada corporations.
Willis told Yahoo! Sports that he did not watch football for a year after he retired from the NFL in early 2015. Although he missed his former teammates and the locker room banter, he knew he had made the right decision to hang up his cleats.
“Football wasn’t a be-all, end-all,” Willis told Schwab in the spring of 2020. “I enjoyed it, and when it ended, I wanted the luxury to do the things I wanted to do.”
Willis’ new app, Football Unleashed with Patrick Willis, debuted in January 2015. He currently teaches a linebacker training course on the sports instructional website, CoachTube.com. He has expanded his role to investor and advisor with the company over the years.
Willis also runs Universe 52, an exclusive club whose perks include meeting him in person, purchasing some of his game-worn memorabilia, and getting other freebies and bonuses.
— MLFootball (@_MLFootball) January 5, 2023
Patrick Willis became a member of the Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame in the summer of 2021.
Willis is also a member of the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team, the College Football Hall of Fame, the Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
Patrick Willis became a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023 in January of that same year.
According to NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco, the 49ers great is currently in his fourth year of eligibility.