There is a long list of San Francisco 49ers legends who played for the club during the 80s and 90s. The franchise went through some dark years following the turn of the century, but one name stands out despite the lack of success.
Patrick Willis was picked 11th overall by the Niners in the 2007 NFL Draft. The linebacker came in and had an immediate impact, capturing the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
The 49ers missed the playoffs in each of Willis’ four seasons, but turned the corner to become one of the best teams in the league once head coach Jim Harbaugh took over. San Francisco made a Super Bowl appearance during and lost in the NFC Championship game between 2011 and 2013, but injuries and off the field drama resulted an 8-8 record in 2014, which was also Willis’ final season in the league.
Willis dealt with a nagging toe injury that sidelined him for all but six games in 2014. This year’s Niners squad is dealing with an unprecedented run of bad luck on the injury front, derailing any hopes of repeating a dominating 2019 campaign. Willis is familiar with the mindset many of the current San Francisco players have with so many of their teammates out with injury.
“They’ve lost some key key guys, I know that feeling a little bit myself,” Willis said. “So I can imagine what they’re going through right now, but they fight man, they fight. That’s all you could ask for.”
Despite missing the likes of Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Richard Sherman, Deebo Samuel and Jimmy Garoppolo for extended periods, the 5-6 49ers are still in the hunt for a playoff spot. The biggest reason the Niners are in a position to get into the postseason is their defense.
Robert Saleh’s unit ranks sixth in yards allowed per game and has allowed San Francisco to remain competitive, even without all of the high-end talents, which Willis says is a testament to the coaching staff.
“They have played really well,” Willis said. “That’s indicative to having some good players, and them buying into the scheme and what he is teaching them, and you can’t forget to give credit to the positional coaches, who help Saleh get the guys prepared each week.”
One of the main reasons for the success of the 49ers’ defense is middle linebacker Fred Warner. The 2018 third-round pick is playing at an All-Pro level, leading the team with 85 tackles. Pro Football Focus has Warner graded as the fifth-best linebacker in football.
“He’s on his way to being a heck of a player,” Willis said. “I don’t want to get too far ahead, but he’s going to have a great career.”
Willis — like Warner — was the anchor of San Francisco’s defense. As the leader of the group, he went about his job with a workmanlike mindset. Both Willis and Warner are beasts on the football field, but the seven-time All-Pro can see the differences in how they approach the game.
“I like his edge. When I played, I made a tackle got back up on my feet and was like, ‘let’s go, we gotta go make another tackle,’ it was like being in a battle,” Willis said. “I see him out there and man, he just commands the defense, he’s flying around, and he’s doing it with what we call swag.”
On top of playing the season during a pandemic, the 2020 49ers are facing an added level of adversity no other NFL team is experiencing. San Francisco was forced to move its operations to Arizona for at least the next three weeks after Santa Clara County tightened its restrictions.
It will be hard for the players to be away from their families for an extended time. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has said the players would face mental health challenges with the move, on top of the already grueling physical toll they endure each week.
Willis believes the Niners will be ready for the challenge, given everything they have already been through in 2020. He knows what the game demands of the players, something he learned at a young age.
“One of the things I understood early on, and I was trying to get my family to understand, was that when this game calls, it calls all of me,” Willis said. “It calls a lot of you. Outside of the family situation, I think the players know that and they will respond well.”
Even though he only played eight seasons, Willis is among the semi-finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2021. The seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro would love the honor, but he won’t let it define him.
“I’m grateful and honored because it’s a prestigious award. It’s the highest award that a player can get, and looking at the fraternity that’s in there now, I mean, that would be amazing,” Willis said. “However, I also am a realist with myself and I tell myself that I will not predicate my success on whether I get an award or not, it will be based on the energy I gave, the effort, my entirety, my truth to it. Because of that, I stand neutral.”
The 35-year-old is still involved with the game. Willis put together an instructional video on playing the linebacker position for coachtube.com, aiming to educate coaches across the country. Willis doesn’t want the game of football to define him, but after speaking to the owner of the site, Wade Floyd, Willis felt it was the right time to give back to the sport.
“What really got me involved in it was getting to know the backstory,” Willis said. The owner of it was talking about not having much growing up and how he is building this. It’s a great tool to help coaches around the country and a way for me to give back and be in touch with the footballing world.”
Even though he hasn’t played a game since 2014, Willis still has fond memories of his time with the Niners, especially the three-year run under Harbaugh. He recalls how The Faithful came alive during the 2011 season and how it felt taking the field each week at the legendary Candlestick Park.
“Big shout out to the fans man, they really lit it up and I can honestly say that I would play football even if it was no fans in the stands whenever because I really enjoy it,” Willis said. “I had that kind of passion to play the game, but the way those Faithful would cheer, the way they would get loud at Candlestick, even though I know people talk about how bad Candlestick was, but it just reminded me of watching those gladiator movies growing up and just being in the arena.”
What made 2011 through 2013 so special was that Willis suffered through so much losing when he entered the league. He credits the fans for sticking with the franchise and giving him the best years of his career.
“For those who stood by us and stayed faithful, and be able to see how chemistry was just rocking like he was back in the olden times,” Willis said. “Everybody was still hung on the olden days, the 80s and 90s. I respect those guys man like big brothers, but I was like, ‘man it’s our time now, it’s time for another run,’ and we were able to do that from 2011 to 2013. I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy those highs had I not went through what I went through early on in my career.”
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