Few players define the standard of a position. Fewer redefine how to play that position. And finally, one of the few who did, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, is recognized for his game-changing greatness as he will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Growing up, I didn't want to play wide receiver or running back. Scoring touchdowns, no, that wasn't what caught my eye. I didn't aspire to be the quarterback, the "leader" of the team throwing dots everywhere, or a ballhawk cornerback snagging interceptions.
I wanted to be a middle linebacker.
Calling the defensive plays, ruling the middle of the field, interceptions, sacks, fumbles, tackles, hit-sticks, you name it, they did it.
My favorite position growing up was middle linebacker, all thanks to one man: San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame linebacker Patrick Willis.
Willis defined an era of Niners football, along with running back Frank Gore (who will likely join him in the Hall of Fame) and left tackle Joe Staley (who may join the pair as well); an era of struggle that peaked with three years of dominance undone by small mistakes before struggle re-emerged.
But even in all the mistakes and struggles, one player you knew was always on top of his game was Willis.
Willis played eight seasons in the NFL, seven of them playing almost every regular-season game, and his final one cut short due to turf toe. In those seven full seasons, Willis made the Pro Bowl. Imagine that level of dominant consistency, including his rookie year, Willis made the Pro Bowl every year he was healthy.
A six-time All-Pro, a five-time first-team All-Pro, the Defensive Rookie of the Year, led the NFL in tackles twice, amassed eight interceptions, 53 pass defenses, 16 forced fumbles... Willis was a force to be reckoned with.
His dominance should have easily outweighed his short playing career, and there is a whole discussion to be had about how "positional value" played a role in Hall of Fame voting as well. But even taking a step away from simply how dominant Willis was, he is a Hall of Famer because of how he irrevocably changed the way off-ball linebackers are utilized and valued.
Before Willis, the middle linebacker position was a position to crash gaps and decimate running backs. This continued with Willis.
But what Willis did that was somewhat novel at the time was pair his tremendous power with excellent range and coverage capabilities. He helped make the middle linebacker position a coverage position as well, just as the NFL began its full transition into its pass-happy ways.
The legacy of Patrick Willis lived through the careers of Luke Kuechly, NaVorro Bowman, and in front of 49ers fans' eyes right now, Fred Warner,
He not only defined an era of 49ers football, Willis redefined a position forever.
And now, he will finally be recognized for his greatness in Canton.