By PHIL BARBER
With (at least) two great inside linebackers in the Super Bowl, both wearing the same jersey number, everyone has been asking Patrick Willis if he chose No. 52 to honor Ray Lewis.
Willis’ answer has been consistent. Given a few options when drafted by the 49ers in 2007 – and none of them being No. 49, the jersey he wore at Ole Miss – he simply liked 52 best.
“I’m an even-number guy,” Willis explained Wednesday. “Not only am I an even-number guy, but 52 just looked so much better on me, I felt like, than them other numbers would.”
That said, he knew Lewis wore No. 52, and was happy to make the connection to a man who was, at that time, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and one-time Super Bowl MVP.
“What a number to wear, and what a number to uphold your play,” Willis reflected. “Like, hey, kid, there’s another guy that wore this number that’s a good football player, so you can’t get this number, man, and not represent.”
All of this has been repeated a few times lately. But during a media session at the 49ers’ hotel, the New Orleans Marriott, this morning, Willis segued into a fantastic little story about the jersey he wore at Central High School in Bruceton, Tenn.
Take it away, Patrick:
“I remember I was in high school, and a kid had No. 42 before I got to high school. And I’ll never forget, his mom was a substitute teacher. I was in eighth grade, and he was a senior. So when I got to be in ninth grade, his mom’s a substitute teacher, he graduated now and I get the No. 42.
“He was a good football player. He was. He was a tight end. But his mom, every Friday in class, she’d be like, ‘Oh, my baby.’ I’m wearing the jersey, I’m wearing No. 42. I’m a respectable person. I am. And I’m even more respectable if you respect me back at the same time. And she’d be in class, and she’d be like, ‘Oh, my baby wore that jersey. He was a good football player. Nobody ever could wear the number like he wore it.’ Just kept saying all this stuff.
“And all of a sudden one day I just – my dad always told me to respect my elders. But I just got in front of the class, and I said, ‘You know what, Ms. Gold?’ Her name was Ms. Gold. I said, ‘This was your son’s number. But it’s not his number anymore, it’s my number. I just want to say I promise you before I leave high school, nobody will ever know that he wore this number before I did. This number will be known as my number.’
“And here we are, 10 years later, and that number’s retired now. So now when people think about that number, that number will be Patrick Willis’ number. It won’t be who had it before me.”
That’s about as close as you’ll come to hearing Pat Willis boast. Clearly, that substitute teacher struck a nerve that stung the young football star.
Willis went on to make it clear that he isn’t trying to lodge Lewis from the No. 52 pedestal. A 52 Ravens jersey will always mean Ray Lewis. He just wants to ensure that a 52 Niners jersey will always mean Patrick Willis.