San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis has been selected to the Pro Bowl every season he’s been in the NFL, but he still finds motivation in a time when he was told he wasn’t good enough.
Willis grew up in Tennessee and wanted to play his college football for the Volunteers, and he said on Monday that the memory of being told Tennessee didn’t want him is still fresh.
“I was a Vols fan growing up,” Willis said. “That was like America’s Team. I wanted to go there so bad. After every game my dad and I would get in the car and drive five hours to go to Knoxville to watch them play on an unofficial visit. This was on our gas money and our time. I just wanted to show them how bad I wanted to be there. I can’t forget being there and you have all these other big-time recruits there and they are shaking their hands and the coaches are talking to them. The coaches never shook my hand. They never talked to me. One day I just got tired of doing that. My senior year, I remember going up and saying, ‘Coach I see all of the other guys getting love. I really want to come here. I’m interested in coming here. Do you have something for me? Maybe a scholarship offer? Maybe something just saying you want me?’ But I didn’t get that. I got, ‘Well you’re having a hard time. We’re recruiting two other linebackers, Ernie Sims and Daniel Brooks. Those are the two guys we want.'”
Sims ended up at Florida State and was a good linebacker in college, but not as good as Willis — and he’s been nowhere near as good as Willis in the NFL. Brooks went to Tennessee but got kicked off the team and never played in the NFL. Willis still remembers being told those two players were better than him.
“I never forget looking at him and being like he basically said, ‘We’re not really interested, we don’t want you,'” Willis said. “I’ll never forget getting in the car with my foster dad and we’re riding home and I cried. I cried, not because I was sad, but more so because I knew how badly I wanted to be a Tennessee Vol. I knew what type of player I could be.”
Willis proved what kind of player he could be at Ole Miss, where he was a two-time All-American and the winner of the Butkus Award for college football’s best linebacker before the 49ers took him with the 11th pick in the 2007 NFL draft. Now Willis is getting ready to show those Tennessee coaches how wrong they were on football’s biggest stage.