Seven years into his NFL career, Patrick Willis has already taken his place among the all-time great linebackers. At 29, he is the chief enforcer for the San Francisco 49ers' unforgiving defense, earning seven consecutive Pro Bowl invites and six All-Pro awards. And it's not a stretch to say that on-field success can be traced to the resilience he learned as a child.
"Growing up the way I grew up really, I think, just matured me faster," Willis told The Huffington Post. "I think that has helped me be able to withstand anything that is thrown my way -- knowing that anything is possible if you just trust in yourself and believe in what you have within yourself."
The former Ole Miss All-American grew up in rural Tennessee in a trailer park. By his 10th birthday, he was working in the cotton fields to help support his family. The four Willis children were being raised by an abusive, alcoholic, drug-using father, so it was Patrick, the oldest, who made sure his younger brothers and sister did their homework and stayed out of trouble. By 17, he'd had enough and turned to school counselors for help. The authorities moved the siblings into foster care. Through it all, Willis immersed himself in sports, trying to avoid the pitfalls and temptations that had ensnared his father.
Even as his home life was falling apart, Willis was thriving on the field. As a kid, he couldn't afford to pay the league entry fees, so he honed his football skills in the Tennessee backwoods. In high school, he became the first person in state history to be nominated for the Mr. Football Award on both defense and offense (he played running back on offense).
"Success to me is not just being like a football player," he said, "but I feel like what makes me successful is my ability to stay who I am and be who I have always been."
These days, he's also working to repair his relationship with his father, Ernest. Even after he found success in the NFL, Willis refused to give up on his father.
"He really is a good guy," Willis told ESPN in 2011. "I'd say we're actually closer now than in the 15 years I lived with him. Probably a year or two ago was the first time my daddy told me, 'I love you, son.' Can you believe that? I was like 23 or 24. ... He said, 'Son, keep doing what you're doing. You got it going on for yourself. I love you, boy.' I was in so much shock I couldn't even cry."
It's a response that clashes with the image of a fierce, unforgiving contender on the field, but one that's consistent with how Willis has chosen to face troubles in his life.
"I'm just comfortable with where I've come from and where I am today," Willis told HuffPost. "I don't take that for granted because I know what it's like to have nothing and I know what it's like to have something. I promise you that it feels better to have something. ... I just stay humble and thankful and just be me."