Patrick Willis has a special understanding of what it takes to succeed
It's hard to become one of the best players in the NFL at any position, and much tougher to do it over an entire career. But if you ask San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis about toughness, and what can really be hard in life, he can tell you a story that makes the NFL's go-round seem like a day at the beach. Born into extreme poverty in rural Tennessee, the five-time Pro Bowler and four-time First-team All-Pro -- he's never missed a Pro Bowl in his career since the 49ers selected him 11th overall in the 2007 NFL draft -- has overcome challenges that would bring most people to their knees. At various instances through his childhood, Willis and his three siblings went without running water and electricity, and Willis' father Ernest was a longtime drug addict who was so abusive, the state of Tennessee had to become involved. But when you ask Willis about his father, all he'll say is that he's grateful for lessons learned. And that's the most remarkable part of Willis' story -- not only has he managed to avoid the bitterness that would hold him back; he's managed to find a positive in nearly everything that has happened through his life. Willis first made his story public in an episode of ESPN's "E:60" documentaries last year, and he's reaching out to inspire others once again through his campaign with Duracell. it's called "Trust Your Power," and it's hard to imagine a better subject for that concept. "I feel it's just the way I was raised. Not having much and not coming from much, I saw my dad go out and work," Willis recently told me. "Despite some of the things he was doing, one of the things my dad told us was that he had to go out and work. He taught us that at a young age -- that if we wanted something, we had to go out and work for it. For me, it was just having that dream of someday getting away and making it out of there and into the pros. I've always wanted to be a professional athlete, whether it was in baseball, basketball, or football -- that was my dream and that was my reality. That was my approach; it had to be more than a dream, and I was always one step closer to reaching my goal." But as much as Willis has learned to forgive, it's hard to reconcile what he and his brothers and his sister had to go through. Willis would spend summers working at logging camps and in cotton fields to supplement his family's meager income, and that money started draining away as Patrick's father started asking for "loans." Everybody knew where that money was going. That left Willis to act as caretaker for his family, even as he was trying to keep his focus on the dream of life in the NFL. How one small child could grow up and through such obstacles with such an unstoppable vision boggles the mind, but it certainly makes Willis' amazing focus and productivity on the field easy to understand. When I asked him what it was that allowed him to stay on the path when so many others might have bailed, Willis responded as of the concept of escape was a foreign one, except if it was earned the right way. "I never allowed myself to think anything negative like that," he told me. "I just used the circumstances around me as a positive. It would have been so much easier to take the easy way out and say, 'I can't do it,' but I just stuck to live experience. My grandmother was a big churchgoer; she always used to make me and my brothers go to church on Sundays, even when we didn't want to -- sometimes, we would run into the woods. But she was big on that, and we would just pray. Just trust in God, and just believe in Him. "So, for me, I always had that as my crutch. A foundation, or a tool to use -- to get on my knees at nighttime and pray. I would ask Him to watch over my family, and to give me the strength to do the things I needed to do. And I just always kept that type of mentality, from the time I was yay-high until now. Just knowing that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and sometimes, He may not be there when you want him to be, but He'll always be on time. That's always been the foundation for me, and everything's just worked around that." Still, there were things that would have tested anybody's faith. Willis' younger brother Detris drowned when Willis was away starring at Ole Miss, and had it not been for the intervention of people who cared enough to take the children in, Willis and his siblings -- Detris, brother Orey, and sister Ernicka -- would have been separated by the foster care system when Willis was a teenager.