SANTA CLARA -- You had to see him floating through the locker room last weekend, standing for interviews, sitting for more interviews, walking and stopping for even more interviews, grinning all the while.
Finally, after soaking in the moment for the better part of an hour, Patrick Willis took a deep breath and began peeling off his armor. His team, the 49ers, had won the NFC Championship game. He had excelled. He had led.
There was no concealing how much it meant to Willis.
The magnificent inside linebacker realized at that moment, and it was clear throughout this week, that he had taken the final, difficult step toward his first Super Bowl and a giant leap toward his professional destiny.
Willis turned 28 on Friday and he clearly is ready at last to claim for himself the throne set aside for the NFL's signature defensive player while also carrying the torch gripped by the league's greatest inside linebacker.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who held both distinctions for more than a decade, is willing to abdicate and surrender them to Willis.
"P. Willis, that's a young lion, man, that I talk to a lot," Lewis told reporters this week in Baltimore. "I talk to him a lot. We just got to texting two days ago. He was just really talking about the feeling and how surreal it is for him."
Even if Lewis, 37, weren't ready to relinquish his stature, Patrick was coming for it.
Drafted 11th overall in 2007, Willis introduced himself to the NFL with the force of a tidal wave. Playing the game in constant overdrive, he earned a starting spot in training camp, made 15 tackles in his NFL debut. He was first-team All-Pro as a rookie and has been selected for the Pro Bowl in each of his six seasons.
Though Willis already is on the radar of the Hall of Fame selection committee, there is one empty space on his résumé. He will try to fill it next weekend in New Orleans. It's symbolic, perhaps poetic, that he must go through Lewis and the Ravens.
"I was just a big fan of his, period," Willis said. "Just his enthusiasm on the field, the passion he plays with. I've always been a big fan of those who play with passion, such as Ray Lewis.
"People always want to make comparisons and talk about torches ... but at the end of the day, I can only be the best player I can be. If at the end of the day, I can look at the mirror and ask myself: Did I give my all? If by my measure I can say, 'Yes,' it really doesn't matter what anyone else says."
In terms of effort and intensity, Lewis and Willis are very much alike. They never, ever coast. They always bring everything they can possibly summon. Though they don't play the exact same position -- Willis' teammate NaVorro Bowman's duties are more similar to Lewis than those of Willis -- they bring the same edge to their unit.
Lewis and Willis wear the same number, 52, and in many ways they have the same presence and make the same impact on the field.
There also was some shared sameness to their childhoods, Lewis growing up with an absentee father, Elbert Ray Jackson, and Willis growing up with a biological father whose struggle with addictions forced Patrick into an adult role when he was barely 13.
And yet Willis and Lewis are very different men -- very, very different.
Lewis, a born-again Christian, has the checkered past, notably the guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge for his involvement in a double homicide that took place near an Atlanta nightclub during Super Bowl week in 2000. He was, for a time, the most visible symbol of athletes gone wild.
Willis, also a man of deep faith, has spent six years in the big time without so much as a rumor of scandal or wrongdoing. He's much more reserved in public and still trying to get comfortable with the amount of attention in which Lewis basks.
"He's a great, great, great young man," Lewis said this week, "and I'm really excited for him and happy for him as well."
There is no doubt, though, that the two friends are at peer level on the field. Or that Willis has gained much from his relationship with Lewis.
"Ray's one of those guys that loves to give his wisdom, give his knowledge," Willis said. "And I'm the type that loves to listen. Anybody who's been there and done that -- especially a guy that's played a long time and been consistently amazing at what he does -- I can sit and listen all day."
Willis understands what is at stake. There is a team to represent, a Super Bowl to be won, a crowning achievement to be pursued, a legacy to be defined.
As good as it feels to get this far, he knows how much better it would be if he were to conquer not only the moment but also the most commanding figure in the game.
He may not have Ray's charisma, but he will not have Ray's baggage. There is no doubt Patrick prefers it that way.
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