More To Willis Than Just Football

Linebacker's rare maturity adds to his draft-day attractiveness

April 25, 2007

By Mike Beacom
Special to

When former Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis returns home to Bruceton, Tenn. this week, he'll receive a king's welcome. After he speaks at a D.A.R.E. rally Wednesday, the town is throwing the top-10 NFL Draft prospect a `good luck' party Friday followed by a ceremony in which the mayor will hand Willis a key to the city and his high school will retire his jersey.

For those unfamiliar with Willis' story it might be easy to think Bruceton is giving thanks to Willis the football player - a monster who won the 2006 Butkus Award and who finished in the top two in the country in tackles the past two seasons. But the 22-year-old is much more than a football player, and Willis the man is someone Bruceton can be proud of well after his days as an inside linebacker are behind him.

Willis helped to raise his three younger siblings in a home where his parents did not provide much support. He even picked cotton to help pay the bills. The school suspected neglect, and after his sister, Ernicka, had sought counseling for physical abuse, the four were taken in by Chris and Julie Finley. Willis has also had to cope with the death of his brother, Detris, who drowned while swimming with friends in a gravel pit.

"I think the Lord puts us into situations for a reason," Willis said. "I don't look at my situation as a bad thing and I don't ask for sympathy."

A youth forced to survive in an unfortunate and unfair environment, Willis could have chosen a different path. Instead, what has not torn him down has given him his character and maturity.

"Through it all, I've continued to play and believe something good would come," said Willis, "and fortunately, it did."

When teams consider Willis this coming weekend, they, too, will celebrate both his phenomenal football instincts and athleticism, and his rare maturity level. He is not just a complete linebacker, he's a complete young man - worthy of investing top dollar.


"I think it helps [NFL teams] see this guy has been through adversity and gotten through it," said Willis.

Of course, even without his strong character, Willis would still be the nation's top inside linebacking prospect. A quick glance at his highlights at Ole Miss and it's easy to see why Willis is expected to become one of the rare inside linebackers drafted among the first dozen or so picks.

"He's absolutely head and shoulders above the other inside linebackers," said Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFL Draft Scout. "Instincts, his ability to run sideline to sideline, his physicality ... he can make an open field tackle with force behind it."

At 6-2 and 240 pounds, Willis is big enough to play inside in the NFL, but his speed and agility rivals the top outside linebackers.

"I try not to be just a one-dimensional linebacker," said Willis. "I want to be an athlete, period."

His game film is enough in itself to make anyone a Willis fan, but a few strong workouts leading up to the draft have allowed for even more praise.

"He's tested out of the roof since the end of the season," said Charles Davis, college football expert for NFL Network, "but I don't care what he tested, I watched him play and that was enough for me. Bottom line, he's a tackling machine, and barring injury, probably will be for the next 10 years."