Inside linebacker Patrick Willis has been an All-Pro for the 49ers in each of his first six seasons in the NFL, establishing himself as arguably the best player at his position.
But Willis' football feats will never measure up to what he's accomplished off the field by simply surviving. When Willis was 10, he occasionally worked in cotton fields to help provide financial support for his family. When he was 16, Willis had to physically stop his father from hitting Willis' younger sister.
Shortly thereafter, Willis' high school basketball coach, Chris Finley, became the legal guardian to Willis and his three younger siblings. When Willis was 21, his younger brother Detris, died in a drowning incident. Through it all, Willis has simply risen from circumstances where many others would've crumbled.
"Honestly, I wouldn't change anything I've gone through, because it's made me who I am" said Willis, who was at Gunn High School in Palo Alto this month leading hundreds of youths through football related activities via Procamps, which has partnered with a number of different companies, including Popchips, Duracell and Walmart. "Life is always going to have its ups and downs, but when you start thinking about how you wish things could be different, just take a moment to pause because there's someone I know who is in a worse position than I am."
Willis, 28, has exceeded everyone's expectations but his own. An all-state running back and linebacker at Central High School in Bruceton, Tenn., the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Willis wasn't highly recruited coming out of high school.
Rated only as a three-star (out of five) recruit, Willis chose to play for the University of Mississippi after none of the traditional Southeastern Conference powers offered him a scholarship.
Still, it did nothing to deter him from becoming one of the best linebackers in college football. A spectacular senior year at Ole Miss allowed Willis to win the Butkus Award for being the nation's top linebacker.
"I've always felt there was something inside of me that would allow me to accomplish anything I put my mind to," Willis said. "It was a powerful thing, because it allowed me to keep on going even when things got tough."
Entering his seventh year in the NFL, Willis said he feels as physically and mentally sharp as he did when he was a rookie. After all the hits, the wear and tear, is that even possible? Yes, Willis said, because now he knows a play before it's even coming.
"I feel just as mobile, but where my comfort comes from the most is the mental side of the game," Willis said. "The knowledge of the game I've been able to gain over the years has allowed me to feel more comfortable making plays. ... Mentally, I'm at a place where I feel comfortable and good. We always say when the mind feels good, the body feels good."
Willis takes tremendous pride in being a role model, a big reason why he decided to get involved with Procamps. With the help of several colleagues, Willis spends a couple of hours on specific dates leading campers through several different activities.
"It's a great honor to be out here and show the kids they are important to me," Willis said. "It's truly a blessing and nothing I take for granted."
It shows. Through heartbreak and adversity, Willis has displayed a remarkable perspective that should prove to be a life lesson for others to follow. In Willis' mind, it's all about humbleness and gratitude.
"When I lay down at night, I say, 'Thank you Lord,' and I'll say the same thing during the day, too," he said. "Because I'm living a dream now, and a lot of people helped get me to this point. It's an honor to be able to give back."