Just call Willis 'Defensive Rookie of Year'

During his spectacular debut season with the 49ers, which he finished as the NFL's runaway leader in tackles, many tried to attach a nickname to Patrick Willis and his unique ability. On Friday, Willis became the fourth individual in 49ers history to be named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and here he gives his takes on his latest accolade and some of the things he experienced to get there.

Q: How does it feel to win this award?
Willis:
It's a great honor. I can't give enough credit to my teammates, especially to my front seven. The defensive line was unbelievable this year, and my linebacking corps just really helped me find my way in the defense. Also, to my coaches, for believing in me, and for Coach (Mike) Singletary for working with me, and helping me become a better linebacker.

Q: Was there a point this season where everything began to click for you?
Willis:
I never said that, after this game, I think I'm going to have a good year. The biggest thing is that each week, I had to continue to work and come out and be productive. Each week was a working opportunity for me to come out and have a good week.

Q: Do you think you got better each week?
Willis:
I think I got more comfortable during the season. I think I started understanding things a little better, and I started seeing a little better. Mostly, a lot changed because I started understanding the defense a lot more. I was learning and learning and not really knowing what it did, or where I needed to get, or things like that. As the season progressed, I kind of learned where I needed to fit exactly, different things like that.

Q: How did you avoid hitting the "rookie wall"?
Willis
It was really because of my linebacking corps. They were tremendous guys for me, and they really helped me as far as eating right and getting rest. That's one thing they kept telling me, ‘Make sure you get good rest, and make sure you take care of your body.' On top of that, just to know guys like Jeff Ulbrich and Derek Smith, and just to see a guy like B.Y. (Bryant Young), guys that have been there for years and continue to come out and work, I feel like, if they can do it, I can do it, too. I just had to push myself a little harder, because they know what it feels like. I just fed off those guys, and took advice of my linebacking corps, telling me to get rest and try to eat well.

Q: How did you find out you won the award?
Willis:
To be honest with you, I woke up and saw a bunch of text messages on my phone this morning. I was like, ‘Why am I getting all the text messages?' On my iPhone, it says, like, 11 text messages and 13 missed calls, like that. So, I got it in text messages and voice mails this morning.

Q: How does it feel to get more votes than Adrian Peterson did for the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award?
Willis:
I really don't even think too much into that. If I would have got one more vote or less votes, for me, it all comes down to somehow, I'm Defensive Rookie of the Year. That's what it comes down to. Adrian had a phenomenal offensive year, and so did other guys. At this point, it's not about having more than he did. It's that we won Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Q: Do you expect Mike Singletary to get a head coaching job?
Willis:
Like I said before, I don't really get too caught up in all that. I just try to take care of what I can take care of. Also, I know this is a business. I learned a lot when I was coming out of high school. The guy that was recruiting me going into college, he was there, and one second, he was fired and going another place. Another guy that was recruiting me got a better job and left. I learned real quick that this was a business, especially going through four different position coaches in my four years of college. Now, whatever happens, I just know I have to continue to work. If he gets a head coaching job, I'll be proud. At the same time, if he returns for another season with the 49ers, I'll appreciate that.

Q: Is there a certain game that stands out for you this season?
Willis:
I couldn't say there was just one game, because like I said, each game I tried to get better. I'd have to say probably that very first game, the Arizona game, stepping out there and being a rookie and all that, going through that fire, and actually doing not too bad. There are a lot of things I could have done better, but for the most part, I actually played well. Coming in, I was like, ‘Alright, I can do this.' Probably the Tampa Bay game, was probably the other best game I had.

Q: Do you consider this to be a springboard to a great NFL career?
Willis:
I'm the type of person that I don't feed off accolades. I just have a passion inside that says, I want to be the best, whether I get recognized for it or not. I just want to be productive to my team, and productive as an individual. This isn't my story. I think this accolade is more of people who say, you know what he can do. I'd like to let the fans kind of enjoy this award more than me. But I know this award, deep down inside, it's a great honor, but I also know that even if I hadn't won this award, I plan on working hard and having a successful career in this league.

Q: What does it mean to have your name on this list of Defensive Rookie of the Year winners?
Willis:
Like I said, B.Y., I really have a lot of respect for him. I know that he won this award his rookie year. I've seen what he's become. I just hope I can have half the career he has. I'm going to use it as a stepping stone and continue to work from this.

Q: Have you heard from Bryant Young today?
Willis:
No sir, I haven't heard from him. I just talked to him leaving the other day. He just said, ‘It's yours, now you've just got to work. It's yours, take it.'

Q: How have you benefited from the one year of being around Bryant Young?
Willis:
I benefited a lot. B.Y. had that kind of motivation where when we have practice, I'll come off the sideline and he'll say something like, ‘How are you feeling today? You feeling alright? How's it coming?' For him to ask me that and want to know how I was in my state of learning the defense, as a rookie it really meant a lot. It's something that I'll forever be able to talk about with my kids someday.

Q: After a full season, how is your body?
Willis:
I feel good. There are some small nagging pains but none that are major or that need treatment. I feel like if we were in the playoffs, I'd be ready to compete in all the games. I'm feeling good. I'm really looking forward to getting to the Pro Bowl and having fun doing that and starting the off-season workout.

Q: What areas do you think you can improve on?
Willis:
There are a lot of areas, whether it be tackling or whatever it be. I think I read yesterday in the paper that I had so many tackles, but didn't get my hands on the ball. And I was thinking, I got my hands on some balls and had some chances to get interceptions when the ball hit my hands. But now, the big thing is taking it to another level, causing more turnovers, having more big plays in ball games and trying to intercept the balls a lot more. So, it's a little bit of everything.

Q: Have you thought about the Defensive Player of the Year Award?
Willis:
No, I haven't thought about that. One thing I learned growing up was, if you don't expect things to happen and then they do, you're honored and you're happy. If they don't, you're not devastated. I just kind of live my life and play the game. All I can do is go out there and put forth the effort and be the very best I can be. If I'm recognized for it, then I am, but if I'm not, than I'm not. But I know inside that I've got to continue to work. That's how I was about the Pro Bowl and that's how I was Defensive Rookie of the Year. I can't control what people say, I can't control who they vote for. All I can do is go out there and play my game. If it's good enough for them to vote for me then I appreciate it, but if not I just have to continue to work.

Q: Of the nicknames that people are coming up with for you, which one do you like the best?
Willis:
I don't know. I kind of went through that in college, too. My Granny, when I was a little boy, named me ‘boss' and my uncle too. Then all of a sudden I got to college and I heard everything from ‘Blade,' with Wesley Snipes, to Tyrese, to P. Willy. And then, I got here, I think Nate (Clements) called me P. Willy, a couple guys just call me Pat, and Chad Johnson called me ‘Bam Bam'. Whatever they want to call me, they call me.

Q: Is this something you could even imagine when you were at Ole Miss?
Willis:
During an interview when I was getting ready for the draft, I told them I always felt like I could play in the National Football League. As a little boy growing up, I believed that I could be who I am. And that's why when you have a dream, if it's a realistic dream, I feel like everybody can accomplish their dream if they really put their mind and their heart into it. I came from a small school and having a good high school career, but at the same time, some people said, ‘He played Division 1-A ball, so that's not a whole lot of competition.' All I wanted somebody to do was take a chance on me so I could show them that I could play this game of football, and Ole Miss was that school to do that. So I went there and got my time and got my opportunity in the National Football League. On draft day, I told my dad, and even during the whole draft process, ‘I don't know what people are going to say about me, I don't know how they're going to think of me, because the draft day is a hard process. But, Lord where ever I go, whether it's 1 through 7, I'm going to go there and give it everything I've got.' And he blessed me to be a part of the 49ers, and that's exactly what I did. He blessed me to come here, although the season wasn't well, I still, no matter what, am going to give it everything I've got.

Q: Do plan on going home at all during the off-season?
Willis:
Yeah, I'm going to be back sometime. I can't say when. I just want to get back and see my family, my brothers and sisters and my grandmother and my loved ones. I'm going to be back sometime, I just can't say when.



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