Patrick Willis’s rookie season in San Francisco was also the final season for offensive lineman Larry Allen, a mountain of a man who’s a finalist this year for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Willis said at Super Bowl Media Day today that taking on Allen at practice was the moment he realized how different the NFL would be from playing college football.
Willis described a 49ers training camp practice in which he thought he’d be able to run right past Allen and make a tackle. Instead, Allen drilled him and sent him flying across the field.
“I saw Larry Allen and I was like, ‘I’m going to put a move on him and go get the ballcarrier. That’s what I did in college,'” Willis said. “I’ll never forget: He pushed me and I swear, I was like I started on one side of the field and ended up on the other side of the field.”
Willis said that the 49ers’ coaches got on his case about that one, and that part of the humiliation of getting chewed out was that the coaches just barked out his uniform number and his school, as if they weren’t going to bother to learn his name until he showed he belonged.
“The worst part was hearing my coach say, ’52, Mississippi, what are you doing?'” Willis recalled. “I was like, ‘You see how big this dude is?'”
In time, Willis learned how to take on those big dudes and become an All-Pro linebacker. But in his first training camp, Willis was just the rookie who got thrown across the field by a future Hall of Famer.