SAN FRANCISCO -- Two hours before he and his teammates would tangle with the formidable Green Bay Packers, linebacker Patrick Willis took a couple minutes to chat with a young Richmond man who also knows something about fighting the good fight.
"You ready to watch some football?" Willis asked 22-year-old Felix Vargas, who has been battling cancer since he was 17.
"Yes," replied Vargas, who watched pregame warm-ups from a wheelchair along the sideline.
"All right," Willis said. "Let's get a picture."
Vargas, a lifelong 49ers fan, attended Saturday night's playoff game courtesy of the 49ers and the Santa Barbara-based Dream Foundation, which grants wishes to adults facing life-threatening illnesses. Diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, as a teenager, Vargas also was diagnosed with lung cancer last summer. Recently he has been undergoing treatment every Monday in three-week cycles.
He says he feels good, and as if to prove his point, he rose from his chair and stood beside the hulking Willis. Vargas' friend Karen Viveros, brother David Vargas and brother-in-law Carlos Guerrero also squeezed into the picture.
Nose tackle Ian Williams also stopped by -- "Nice shoes," he told Felix Vargas, who was wearing shiny white athletic shoes with red trim -- as did Dr. John York, team co-chairman.
It was a scene Vargas scarcely could have imagined before his phone rang a week ago.
"The Dream Foundation
On Thursday he was invited to the 49ers' training facility.
"It was amazing," he said. "I got to meet all the players, and the coaches came up to me and said 'Hi.' They were just friendly and fun to be with. I got there around 12:45, and we were there for three hours. I got a tour of the facility, and after that we got to see them practice."
After practice, Vargas and Viveros had lunch with head coach Jim Harbaugh.
"We chatted about how exciting Saturday would be," said Vargas, a Berkeley High graduate, "and we asked him a couple questions. My friend (Viveros) asked him why does he look so serious? Every time we watch him on TV he has a serious face. He said, 'That's just me. I get in a different kind of mode when it comes to football.'"
So does Vargas.
"It gets my mind distracted," he said. "It gives me energy to keep going."
An example was the 49ers' Monday night victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2011 season. "I was in the hospital," Vargas said. "I was screaming and screaming, and the nurses would come in and say, 'What's wrong?' And I would say, 'Nothing. My 49ers are winning.' That's an unforgettable moment."
Viveros, who said she has been by Vargas' side for the past seven months, has seen firsthand how football and the events of this week have boosted her friend's spirits.
"It's been a good experience for him," she said.
Clad in a 49ers light jacket, knit 49ers cap and red and gold beads, Vargas looked around the stadium in wonder.
"Amazing," he said. "It's inspiring. It looks way bigger in person."
And about the game?
"I'm nervous," he said. "But we're going to get a victory."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/garyscribe.