NASHVILLE — Patrick Willis is headed to London this week. First, he had to savor a much-anticipated homecoming, of sorts.
Willis, the San Francisco 49ers All-Pro linebacker who, last year, was named to the Pro Bowl for a sixth consecutive year, played in his home state of Tennessee for the first time in his professional career. Fortunately for the seven-year veteran, it was a rather jubilant return, given the streaking 49ers seized their fourth win in as many weeks with a 31-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans before 69,143 witnesses at LP Field in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
“Like I said earlier in the week, it’s one of those things where each time I’m allowed to go out and be blessed to be on the field and be able to perform, I always put my best foot forward, no matter whether it’s in California or being in my home state where I played (high school football),” Willis said.
The former Ole Miss All-American showed no signs of rust against the Titans while making his second consecutive start after missing two games because of a groin injury. Willis recorded a team-high nine tackles Sunday for a 49ers defense that is tied for seventh in the NFL with Cincinnati for points allowed (19.29 per game). The 28-year-old Willis, in fact, put on a masterful display in front of hundreds of red and gold-clad 49er fans, many of whom turned out wearing his No. 52 jersey.
Among the sea of red spectators who spent a majority of the game cheering as San Francisco (5-2) staged its most complete outing of the season was a number of Willis’ relatives and close acquaintances, many of whom witnessed firsthand Willis growing up in poverty-stricken Bruceton, Tenn., a small, rural town in Northwest Tennessee with a population of roughly 1,459. Willis had landed a full-time job before he turned 10, working long hours in a neighborhood cotton field. By the time he turned 17, he and his siblings were forced out of their double-wide trailer park home when his father, an alcoholic, became increasingly violent.
It wasn’t long afterward, though, that Willis’ permanent residence was the home of his high school basketball coach. Consequently, he enrolled at Bruceton High, where he became a multisport star in football, basketball, and baseball, becoming the first prep athlete in Tennessee to be nominated for Mr. Football both as a linebacker and running back in the same season. Widely regarded as a three-star recruit by various recruiting analysts, Willis chose Ole Miss over the University of Memphis, where he evolved into a two-time First Team All-American.
Prior to his long-awaited homecoming on Sunday, Willis has enjoyed an efficient professional stint, having registered 839 career tackles and 17.5 sacks in six-plus NFL seasons heading into the 49ers’ game versus the Titans (3-4). Selected with the 11th overall pick by San Francisco in 2007, the organization signed him to a five-year, $53.51 million extension three years ago. And, given his stellar display in Sunday’s win, it’s safe to assume the Niners’ defense is starting to demonstrate the same assertiveness that helped propel San Francisco to its sixth Super Bowl appearance last season. The 49ers play Jacksonville Sunday in London’s Wembley Stadium, Willis’ second international game as a pro and his first since 2010 when San Francisco beat Denver, 24-16, in London.
As Willis tells it, returning to the Volunteer State for the first time since he entered the NFL ranks has only added more memories to what he hopes is a Super Bowl-winning campaign for the defending NFC champions.
“You know, I’m not sure,” said Willis, when asked how many of his relatives and friends made the 105-mile commute from Bruceton to Nashville to witness him play Sunday. “I know my brother and sister came up. My foster parents, they were here. I saw my aunt right at the end after the game. I didn’t know she was here. I saw her as I was walking toward the tunnel. It was nice to see her. She’s actually my dad’s twin.”
Fortunately for Willis, what his friends and loved ones witnessed in his return to Tennessee was that the catalyst of the 49ers’ defense hasn’t missed a beat since the days when he emerged as multisport star at Bruceton, something fans in the world’s largest stadium will witness Sunday in London.