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Super Bowl linebacker's success story one of inspiration

Willis' inner strength as important as outer force he exhibits for 49ers

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

7:34 PM CST, January 30, 2013

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NEW ORLEANS — To express his individuality better than spoken words could Wednesday, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis displayed his taut biceps for the cameras.

"When I flex, it says 'I'm me,' '' a posing Willis said of his tattooed message. "I have all the respect in the world for guys they compare me to. I just hope someday I can have that kind of name so when people talk about linebackers, I'm one of those guys. But I can only be me.''

That would be the guy whose inner strength impresses an audience even more than the muscles Willis clearly enjoys showing off.

He's the guy who developed diligence picking cotton as a 10-year-old to make money for his poor family living in a trailer. He's the guy who learned responsibility cooking dinner for his younger siblings because his mother disappeared when Willis was 4 and his father struggled with alcoholism. He's the guy who, as a 16-year-old, had the guts to report his dad, Ernest, for physically abusing his little sister. He's the guy who showed perseverance passing the ACT on his fifth attempt and taking an edge to Ole Miss after Tennessee coaches ignored him so badly on five unofficial visits that he cried.

He's the guy who delivered the eulogy after younger brother Detris drowned in a lake seven years ago and those close to Willis worried he finally would crack.

"When Detris passed away, you looked for Patrick to make an excuse and say, 'OK, I've had enough, every time I try to reach a goal there's something pushing me back.' But he never did,'' Chris Finley, the man Willis calls Dad, recalled Wednesday. "Even with his family situation, Patrick never has been bitter about anything in his life. His response always is it made me who I am today and I'm thankful for it.''

The story about an inside linebacker wearing No. 52 that should be celebrated during Super Bowl week isn't necessarily the one hogging headlines with denials and half-truths. The narrative of Willis overcoming rough circumstances of his youth also provides as much inspiration as Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher's — and they made a movie, "The Blind Side,'' about Oher escaping poverty by moving in with a kind-hearted family.

"I'm not here to compare and say my life would make a better movie or book than Mike's,'' said Willis, 28, a close friend and former Ole Miss teammate of Oher's. "His movie's one of the best I've ever seen because in ways our situations are similar in how they ended up turning out.''

To this day, Willis thanks the Finleys for his happy ending. Chris and Julie Finley, a white married couple who taught in the Hollow Rock-Bruceton (Tenn.) Central school system that educates 600 students in grades K-12 in the same building, welcomed Willis and his brother Orey into their home in the spring of 2002. Both legal guardians were 25 years old living in a trailer at the time. Tennessee's Department of Children's Services placed Willis' youngest brother and sister, Ernicka, in a different foster home. Churches in the rural town of 1,500 emptied food pantries to the Finleys. Local clothing stores opened their doors.

"We're a close community and everybody rallied to help,'' said Chris Finley, 36, also the school's basketball coach.

It was Finley who spent late nights studying with Willis for the ACT and told him after their final futile five-hour trip to visit Tennessee coaches to use the snub as motivation. It was Finley who skipped three basketball games this week to spend it with his wife and youngest kids, ages 2 and 4, at the 49ers hotel in the Big Easy to see Willis rewarded for his hard work. It was Finley with whom Willis first shared the dream of escaping small-town Tennessee for the NFL big time more than a decade before he emerged as the league's best linebacker. Not even Ray Lewis made the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons the way Willis has.

Watching film makes it obvious what kind of player Willis is. To adequately see the type of person he became might warrant a larger screen one day. Oher knows a compelling tale when he sees one.

"We understand one another because of our similar backgrounds and know how tough it is growing up without taking anything for granted,'' Oher said.

The old buddies from Ole Miss who share more than an alma mater hoped to find time amid the frenzy to get together before Sunday.

"But we hang out a lot in the offseason so it won't be major if we miss each other,'' Oher said.

These two just meeting on the same field for the Super Bowl seems memorable enough.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh