Patrick Willis became a bona fide Californian on Tuesday night when the San Francisco 49ers' rookie linebacker survived his first earthquake.
“I wanted to run, but I didn't know where to run to,” Willis recalled, still grinning the next morning after those 10 seconds of panic during a quake centered a few miles from his home.
“I thought somebody hit the place or something,” Willis said. “It was shaking, and wow! I couldn't believe it. Normally with something like that, I'm ready to go, but I didn't know where to run.”
When the ground isn't shaking, Willis usually knows exactly where he's headed. That's why he was selected as the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for October on Wednesday, adding another honor to his impressive debut season. The 49ers play at Atlanta on Sunday.
Willis leads the NFL with 10.4 tackles per game, and his 73 total tackles in seven games are second only to Tampa Bay's Barrett Ruud, who has 78 in eight games. The Niners' speedy inside linebacker has become the stopper on San Francisco's defense, chasing down running backs and receivers from sideline to sideline each week with speed that still dazzles his coaches.
He has at least 10 tackles in each of the 49ers' past four games, including a 13-tackle effort against the New York Giants and 10 last weekend against New Orleans. Willis was the club's defensive team captain for that game against the Saints, becoming the first rookie to get the honor from coach Mike Nolan.
Willis has remained humble despite his growing profile – and admittedly, that's easier to do because of the 49ers' five-game losing streak. He gives the credit for his statistics to the teammates who set him up to make tackles and the coaches who taught him the art of pursuit – particularly linebackers coach Mike Singletary.
“Nobody really sees what goes on behind the cameras, but Coach Singletary is out there every day making me a better ballplayer,” Willis said. “Without all the other guys like Derek (Smith) and Jeff (Ulbrich) and Brandon (Moore), this wouldn't happen. They didn't let me coming in as a first-round pick get to them. They've been helping me out. I owe a lot to them.”
The 49ers' record aside, Willis' rookie season has been a huge success for a player who's endured more than his share of hardships.
Willis' high school basketball coach and his wife became Willis' guardians when he was 16, following years of neglect by his biological father. Willis' 17-year-old brother, Detris, then drowned in July 2006 while swimming with friends.
Though Willis seems to be among the few 49ers who can be held blameless for the losing streak, he accepts this early lesson in mental toughness as help for his future. Willis has been in this spot during his college career at Ole Miss, where he endured three straight losing seasons before graduation.
Sunday's visit to Atlanta is the 49ers' first game within driving distance for his relatives in Tennessee and his friends in Mississippi. He doesn't know how many fans will be cheering him at the Georgia Dome, but he suspects the crowd will be huge.
“Not everything is going to be perfect,” Willis said. “Football is adversity. We've been through that for weeks and weeks, and hopefully we'll turn it around on Sunday.”