Our fourth Gameday cover story of 2011 focused on four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis and his relentless pursuit of perfection.
The cover designed by graphic designer Ben Mayberry features a Terrell Lloyd photograph from 2010 that epitomizes Willis on the football field. In the shot, Willis is kicking up dirt all while sporting a determined look on his face as he makes his way to a ball carrier.
And while the 49ers star’s well-known pursuit is fully illustrated on the cover, on the inside, Willis opened up about his goals with the 49ers. It’s not enough for Willis to be a respected play-maker. He wants to be known for being a difference-maker on a top team.
Patrick Willis: Relentless Pursuit
Four Pro Bowl appearances, and still, Patrick Willis remains unsatisfied.
By Taylor Price, 49ers.com
Offensive coordinators in the National Football League will be hard-pressed to get a good night’s sleep when game-planning against the San Francisco 49ers defense and its four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis. It’s a challenging circumstance for coaches in any game week, especially when stopping a fearsome front seven that features one of the most athletically-gifted defensive players in the game, and the so-called “VP of Carnage.” When those opposing coordinators turn on 49ers game film and focus solely on San Francisco’s defensive captain, the one wearing No. 52, there’s automatic awareness of the 6-foot-1, 240-pound, game-changer in the middle.
Quite frankly, nobody patrols the middle of the field like the 49ers linebacker who made 595 tackles in his first four seasons in the league. To put Willis’ impact on the 49ers organization into perspective: Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young were named All-Pro three times each in their respective careers, while Willis is a three-time All-Pro performer in just four seasons.
So now you understand why coaches take time giving Willis extra attention. Such planning might last late into the night where schemes are devised to stop Willis’ tackling prowess. Those tactics typically involve 300-plus pound linemen heading Willis’ way or misdirection in the running game – anything to disrupt the free-ranging tackling ability of the star linebacker. In spite of the massive blockers trying to slow him down, or the diversions coordinators come up with to try to keep him contained, Willis finds a path to the ball carrier. Try your mightiest to stop him, Willis still consistently succeeds.
But it’s not enough just to get extra attention from opposing coaches. In hearing the way Willis describes his outlook for the 2011 season, it’s clear that Willis doesn’t merely want to be a respected player in the league or just a popular vote on the Pro Bowl ballot. The selfless linebacker seeks bigger achievements. And while Willis doesn’t necessarily back away from the extra attention that comes with being a high-profile player in the spotlight, he clearly wants it more so with his teammates beside him. “At the end of the day, I want to win and I want to win big,” says Willis. “It doesn’t do any good to just be a good athlete. People talk about teams that win, the teams that have championships.”
It’s no surprise Willis has entered his fifth season in the NFL as determined and relentless as ever. “I know at the end of the day, no man is perfect, but we can certainly strive to be,” says Willis. “I’d rather have the mindset of striving to be perfect than to just strive to be OK. I don’t want to be average.” Under a new defensive staff led by coordinator Vic Fangio, Willis has been challenged to showcase even more of his athletic dominance, and has looked anything but average in the process. Willis has been up to the task thus far, displaying his standard dominant play in last week’s 33-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks. Willis’ will was true to his reputation as he picked up five tackles and a fumble recovery in the 49ers first win under new head coach Jim Harbaugh.
True to his motto of “never being satisfied,” Willis is always finding ways to improve. If he deems it being beneficial for his career, Willis has been willing to try new things in his relentless pursuit to be his best, even if it’s outside the norm. Activities like mixed martial arts, video games, and switching athletic sponsors just tip the iceberg of Willis’ quest for perfection. Sure, there’s countless hours of traditional football training in the weight room, the film room and on the practice field, but there’s more to Willis than running himself ragged. “The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve matured in knowing what my body is saying – knowing that it’s okay to rest sometimes – that it’s okay to not do certain things,” says Willis. “I used to always have the mindset of, ‘Kill yourself – that’s the only way to get better.’ But I know that’s not true. With your own body, only you know yourself. I’ve matured big-time in that aspect and that’s helped my game as well.”
Willis learned to play through pain last December in the team’s Week 15 and 16 losses to San Diego and St. Louis. Despite the discomfort, he totaled a season-high 17 tackles against the Rams, mostly making tackles with a big black cast on his right hand. The broken hand was also enough of an injury to limit his non-traditional training in the offseason. Willis missed out on the mixed martial arts training that he enjoyed in 2010. Because of an introduction from a friend, Willis took to MMA training at the gym of renowned martial artist Randy Couture where he found himself working out with the top names in the sport. Willis took to MMA mainly because it reminded him of the valuable time he spent with his uncle, a professional boxer named Arthur Joe Willis.
“I don’t condone fighting in any instance unless it’s to survive,” says Willis. “But my uncle was a professional and he got us into training with him and running with him as young kids. I wanted to be just like him growing up, so I always had a knack for boxing. And when MMA came about, I really liked it.” Willis also enjoyed the cardio aspect, as well as the leverage and hand speed techniques that he learned. “I was willing to do it because it was a challenge and I like challenges,” says Willis. “I like to push myself.” Due to the broken hand, Willis relied on more traditional training methods this offseason. “The last thing I needed to be doing was punch something and mess it up,” says Willis. “I just tried to be smart.”
And although he kept away from physical contact in the offseason, Willis couldn’t stay far away from competition. The avid video game player took part in the annual Madden video game tournament at Super Bowl XLV where we won the competition along with New England Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. It’s not a surprising outcome if you knew just how competitive Willis can be. Virtual game or not, Willis calls plays like a defensive coordinator and becomes miserable just like a real coach if his defense gives up any points. “I honestly take great pride in playing Madden,” admits Willis with a smirk after mentioning how he likes to randomly play against followers through his @PatrickWillis52 Twitter account. “I really do treat it like a coordinator calling plays. It’s my chance to be a defensive or offensive coordinator, and I do take pride in running something on defense and then tweaking it myself.” Considering his hand was mostly covered in a cast for the tournament, Willis’ victory speaks to his game-playing skills, but also his knowledge of defense.
His presence at the event also speaks to his budding popularity. It wasn’t his only noticeable time in the spotlight. Willis was featured in K-SWISS’ national ad campaign featuring several prominent athletes, as well as fictional athlete Kenny Powers, played by actor Danny McBride. The comedic K-SWISS commercial featured Willis running through a wooden wall as Powers declared him the company’s new “VP of Carnage.” The light-hearted commercial was enjoyable for Willis to do, but more so for its association with a company and brand that gives him comfortable equipment for his training. “They have some great shoes,” says Willis, the budding pitchman. “They welcomed me in and gave me some spotlight. You can’t beat that.”
The latest spotlight will be cast on Willis this Sunday as he faces the favorite team of his childhood, the Dallas Cowboys. Willis admits, there were times in his youth where he would demand to play video games as America’s Team. But much has changed since those days. “Now, I’m a die-hard 49ers fan,” says Willis. “I bleed red and gold each and every day – that’s me.” Being that the 49ers are looking to extend their winning ways against Dallas, Willis knows there’s no better time to start winning. Knowing all the ways he’s worked to get to this point of his career, it’s understandable why Willis is so determined. “We’re on a mission here to win games and to make it to the playoffs and to get that sixth trophy,” says Willis. “That’s our goal each and every day, to make sure we see that it happens.”
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