Growing up as a youngster in rural Tennessee, Patrick Willis set a goal to make it to the NFL.
He wished to play for his favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys.
But, of course, that is not how it works.
Those who are talented enough and work hard enough to get drafted into the NFL do not have any say in the matter. In retrospect, it worked out just fine for Willis ... despite going to his least-preferred team.
“I always tell anyone, ‘Never say never,’ ” Willis told NBC Sports Bay Area. “I was a kid, and I’d say, ‘I’ll never play for the 49ers.’ I’d be ready to fight if anybody said I wanted to play for the 49ers.”
Willis and former 49ers wide receiver John Taylor were announced Wednesday evening as the 30th and 31st members of the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. 49ers Hall Of Fame.
Willis and Taylor will be honored at the 49ers’ Week 15 game, Dec. 19, against the Atlanta Falcons at Levi's Stadium.
Taylor played for the 49ers from 1987 to ’95. He was a two-time Pro Bowl player, three-time Super Bowl champion and was named to the NFL All-Decade second team of the 1980s as a punt returner.
Taylor caught the game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass from Joe Montana with 34 seconds remaining to lift the 49ers to a 20-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII to cap the 1988 season.
Bryant Young was announced as an inductee last year but was never recognized with a ceremony due to the pandemic. He will be honored at the Nov. 7 game against the Arizona Cardinals.
“I’m just truly honored to be going in with those truly amazing legends and Hall of Famers,” Willis said. “To do it with a historical organization as the 49ers, and the historical players who came through the franchise, I don’t really have the words. I’m just honored.
“And the Faithful from Day 1 showed nothing but love, and to be going in on their behalf, and just everyone who rooted for us and cheered for us during those rough years and during our best years, I’m honored.”
Once willing to go to blows at the mere suggestion he could play for the 49ers, Willis knows all about enduring the struggle to achieve success.
He fought for a college scholarship to Ole Miss against the odds of a difficult upbringing. He was recruited as an “athlete.” A terrific high-school linebacker and running back, he chose to focus on defense full-time shortly after arriving in college.
Willis earned All-American honors his final two seasons at Ole Miss. In 2019, Willis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
He battled his way to become a first-round draft pick in 2007.
Of course, the 49ers were the organization that gave him that chance.
And after a remarkable eight-year playing career cut short due to problematic feet that prevented him from playing up to his standard, he now occupies an indelible place in 49ers history.
Willis, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, retired after appearing in just six games in the 2014 season. He went on injured reserve that season after undergoing surgery on a chronic foot condition.
In his seven full seasons with the 49ers, Willis was selected to seven Pro Bowls. He was a six-time All-Pro, including five years as a first-team selection. He was named to the NFL All-Decade team for the 2010s.
Willis entered the NFL with fervor. He led the league in tackles and earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year recognition. He had six seasons in which he registered 100 or more tackles.
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Oddly, Willis did not advance to the finalist round for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first two years of eligibility. Players become eligible for the Hall of Fame once they have been out of the game for five seasons.
Willis said he does not get too involved in the Hall of Fame process because he recognizes a lot of great, older players are not yet enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
He said he is comfortable with his place in line and prefers the deserving individuals who have waited longer get recognized first.
After all, Willis has no regrets. He realizes he got just about everything he could out of his playing career.
“I felt like I could step away from the game knowing that everything I put into this game mentally, physically, psychologically, emotionally. I had nothing else to truly give,” he said.
Willis, now 36, grew up in a difficult family situation and poverty in Bruceton, Tennessee, a community with a population of 1,500. The Atlantic in 2015 described Bruceton as a “ghost town.” Jobs disappeared and population dropped after textile companies began shutting down in the mid-1990s.
As documented on E:60 in 2012, Willis’ mother left the family when he was 4. At 10, he worked full time in the cotton fields to help support his family. His father was described as a drug user and abusive.
As the oldest child, Patrick served as a parental figure for his three younger siblings.
All the obstacles he faced in life did not break him. He naturally found his place as a leader every season he played for the 49ers.
“It was rough, don’t get me wrong,” Willis said. “But now that I’m able to look back on it, I feel that everything I went through prepared me for what was ahead.
“Being a captain in the National Football League for one of the greatest historical organizations in football, everything that happened allowed me to be who I am.”