Home State Wide It did not take long for Hall of Famer Patrick Willis to make an impression

It did not take long for Hall of Famer Patrick Willis to make an impression

Ole Miss football great Patrick Willis was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week. Credit: Ole Miss Athletics

Patrick Willis, the best linebacker I ever covered, made a lasting impression the first time I saw him. It was Oct. 18, 2003. He was an 18-year-old freshman at Ole Miss.

Willis was a lightly recruited linebacker from Tennessee who did not even receive an offer from his home state Volunteers. His other Division I offer was from Memphis. Indeed, I don’t think I had ever heard his name called until Ole Miss kicked off to Alabama to begin the game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Alabama’s Ramzee Robinson, one of those legions of fleet-footed, sturdy Crimson Tide defensive backs we’ve seen through the years,  gathered in the kickoff at his own 10-yard line. He probably thought he was just getting started when he reached the 17-yard line. He was wrong.

As I wrote that day, “…Freshman Patrick Willis hit him like a speeding pickup truck. Wham! Robinson went backwards. It was the first of many whams!”

It set the tone for the day. Willis and his Rebel teammates played the first quarter as if they were flying, took a 24-0 lead and clocked Alabama 43-28. Afterward, David Cutcliffe, the Rebels coach said, “Hitting like that can be contagious.”

Rick Cleveland

Now, I’m not going to sit here and write that I knew then that Patrick Willis was going to be a College Football Hall of Famer (inducted in 2019) or a Pro Football Hall of Famer (announced Thursday), but I did know I was watching someone special. It’s not often you see an Alabama runner, at full speed, slammed a couple yards backwards. Usually, it’s the other way around.

But Willis hit like that for four seasons at Ole Miss, the last three on losing football teams. He was anything but a loser. He was twice a first team All American, twice All-SEC. He led Ole Miss in tackles as a sophomore and led the SEC as a junior and senior. He won the Butkus and Lambert and Conerly trophies.

If you watched Ole Miss often during those four seasons, you saw him do what he did to Ramzee Robinson to backs from LSU, Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee and anyone else the Rebels played. He really was the perfect linebacker: big, strong, fast, quick and remarkably instinctive.

Off the field, he was a thoughtful and respectful gentleman, even in the worst of times. And there were plenty of those his last two years under Ed Orgeron. I particularly remember when Jerious Norwood ran for 204 yards and four touchdowns in State’s Egg Bowl victory over Ole Miss in Willis’s junior season. It probably won the Conerly Trophy for Norwood and lost it for Willis, who made 15 tackles and intercepted a pass that day. Willis gave credit where it was due, calling Norwood “the best back I’ve faced.”

Willis’ excellence and demeanor was all the more remarkable when you considered his childhood. He grew up in poverty, working in cotton fields to earn money to feed younger siblings. When his alcoholic father became abusive, he and his siblings moved in with Willis’ high school basketball coach. Nevertheless, Willis was All-State in football both as a running back and linebacker and also played basketball and baseball.

You may remember that Willis was considered a late first round or early second round draft choice following his senior season, but then blew up during postseason workouts, all-star games and the NFL combine. At 240 pounds, he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash on Ole Miss Senior Day. At the combine, his vertical leap was measured at 39 inches. He was the defensive MVP in the Senior Bowl. The San Francisco 49ers made him the 11th pick of the draft.

And, of course, he was the defensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL. As a rookie, he was coached by Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Singletary, who said, “I’ve already coached two of the greatest linebackers, one who has already proven to be one of the greatest (Ray Lewis) and one who will be (Patrick Willis).”

Willis a first team All-Pro six times in an eight-year NFL career and played in seven Pro Bowls. His retirement announcement in 2015, at the age of 30, was stunning. He left a $22 million contract on the table. When you hit as hard as Willis hit, there are aches and pains that come with it. Like running back greats Jim Brown, who retired at 29, and Barry Sanders, who retired at 30, Willis retired with his health intact. He earned nearly $50 million as a pro. How much money does one guy need?

He has his health, plenty of money and a spot in Canton, Ohio, as one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game.

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