Patrick Willis: Eternal Gratitude for Foster Parents Who Shaped His Life

Look, there’s Patrick Willis, perhaps the most famous graduate in Central High history, who’ll play inside linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers in next week’s Super Bowl, from the Class of 2003.

Patrick Willis still holds foster parents dear

There’s Ernest Willis, his father, Class of 1981. There’s Orey, his brother, Class of 2005. And there’s Ernicka, his sister, Class of 2006. But, sadly, not Detris, his brother who drowned the summer before his senior year, missing from the Class of 2007.

Ernest is not Patrick’s only father. To find the other man Patrick calls Dad, and the woman he calls Mom, you have to look even closer — among the Class of 1994 you’ll find Chris Finley and Julia Cole, high school sweethearts, unaware of the unexpected bend coming not too far down the road.

Struggles of 49ers LB Willis lead to ultimate success

Chris and Julie Finley, both 36, will be in New Orleans next week for the Super Bowl as guests of the gentle foster child who grew up to be one of the NFL’s most fearsome competitors. How they came to be his foster parents is a tale familiar to just about everyone in this tiny town of not much more than 1,500.

Chris and Julie were 25 and had been married for about a year. He was teaching at the high school and she at the elementary school on the same campus. One day, in the spring of 2002, Rod Sturdivant, the football coach at the time, told Chris that the state was poised to take Ernest’s children from him. Their mother walked out years earlier and Patrick, at 17, was in some ways his younger siblings’ primary caregiver.

E60: The Good Life, Patrick Willis

“Rod said they didn’t know anyone in town who could take all four of them and he asked, ‘Do you know anybody?’ ” Chris recalls. “In a roundabout way, he was asking us if we could take them.”

Sturdivant says he wasn’t really asking that. The state’s Department of Children’s Services would have preferred a black family, Sturdivant says, but the Finleys are white.

Mansión De Patrick Willis

But Chris went straight to Julie’s classroom to talk about opening their four-bedroom, two-bath single-wide trailer to the Willis kids. They consulted their families and their church, but there wasn’t much time for talk as the children could be sent to another county far from home within 24 hours.

“I said, ‘Sure, that’s something we could do. Why not?’ ” Julie recalls. “Looking back, we were 25 and we thought we could do anything. Everybody else said, ‘Do you have any idea what you’re getting into?’ ”

They didn’t. The state gave them the four Willis kids, and they kept them through the summer. It was more difficult than they imagined.

“We were 25 and all of a sudden had four teenagers,” Chris says. “Well, they weren’t all teenagers yet, but mostly. My wife and I looked at each other and we knew we didn’t have the time to give to four teenagers.”

The Department of Children’s Services decided the Finleys would keep the older pair and the younger pair would go to another foster home. “That,” Chris says, “was a hard day.”

It was never supposed to be permanent. The Finleys would keep the four kids for the summer, maybe six months at the most, and Ernest would get counseling and the opportunity to have his children back.

“Ernest, for whatever reason, he never did the counseling,” Chris says.

“It was a little while,” Julie says, “that turned into forever.”

It takes a small town

Bruceton is about 100 miles from Nashville, and folks here in western Tennessee tend to be Titans fans, though not so much in Bruceton and Hollow Rock, where lots of folks are rabid 49ers fans these days.

Small towns typically rally behind a favorite son who makes it on the national stage, but that feeling runs especially deep here because so many feel as if they had a hand in raising Patrick, takes-a-village style.

“When we took them in, one guy who owns a local clothing store said, ‘Bring them in, we’ll get them what they need,’ ” Chris says. “All the churches opened up their food pantries. It was a community effort. Patrick’s got such a good personality that he allows everybody to feel like they were on the journey with him, the teachers, the shopkeepers, everyone.”

Chris teaches math and coaches basketball. He’ll miss three games so he can be in New Orleans for the Super Bowl. His assistants are used to that. He missed three games last year to be at the Pro Bowl .

Basketball is how Chris and Julie came to know Patrick, which made it easier when they had to decide so quickly whether to take him in.

“He was a freshman my first year here,” says Chris. “There was a group of kids who couldn’t go home and get back before games, so we’d load up those three or four and take them home and cook hamburgers.”

Julie remembers him from those meals as “just the best kid, very mild-mannered and gracious and polite. When it came to taking him in it was like, ‘Well, we know him.’ ”

In those days, Patrick called his future foster parents “Miss Julie” and “Coach” — still does, unless introducing them to friends, when he calls them Mom and Dad.

Outside the gym is a team photo of Central’s only undefeated regular season basketball champions, the 1978-79 team that would lose a district tournament final in double overtime. Buddy Smothers coached Ernest Willis on that team.

“People have to understand,” Smothers says. “Ernest is a not a bad person, never was, but he made some bad choices in life.”

One awful day, as Smothers tells it, Ernest and his kids were playing basketball and things took an ugly turn. Ernest struck Ernicka, and the next day Patrick told a school counselor. That’s how the state got involved.

Sturdivant, as an educator, thought staying in their hometown would be best for the Willis kids. As a football coach, he also wanted Patrick back for his senior season.

“I had a lot of motives,” says Sturdivant, now the district’s director of schools. “I knew he was a pretty good football player,” though not how good. “I had no idea he’d be in the NFL some day.”

For his part, Willis said Thursday at the 49ers’ practice facility that he didn’t want to talk just now about his hometown and how it shaped him.

Two-sport star

What do you get for the man who has everything, including a $50 million contract?

Patrick turns 28 Friday. Chris and Julie will celebrate with him when they get to New Orleans. Chris wants to give Patrick some game film of his days playing high school basketball, so he can show it to his teammates and friends.

“It’s sketchy around here as to what the coach has done with all the game film,” Chris says, grinning. “It’s in a closet somewhere.”

Chris won his only district tournament in 2003, with Patrick starring at forward. A banner in the gym shows that Central has won the district tournament in basketball just twice — 1983 and 2003. Also on the gym wall is the only number retired by the football program, Patrick’s 42. (He wears 52 on the 49ers.)

Central is a small high school, about 220 kids, not much more than 50 per class. The Tigers play in Class A, the state’s smallest classification, and Chris figures they’re on the small end of that.

Patrick was a four-year varsity starter at running back and linebacker. At first, Sturdivant played him at defensive end, but other teams would run away from him. So Sturdivant moved him to middle linebacker, where he could run down ball carriers sideline to sideline.

“Patrick never left the field,” says Smothers, the Tigers radio voice. “He was one of a kind.”

Patrick was not highly recruited coming out of high school. Chris figures that’s because colleges didn’t believe a player who dominated at Class A could match up with players coming out of larger schools with tougher competition.

“He really wanted to go to Knoxville, but they didn’t offer,” Chris says. “Ole Miss offered and then Memphis came in. He visited Ole Miss and really liked it.”

There, Patrick played on the same team with Michael Oher, the offensive tackle who will be on the other side of the ball for the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl. Oher was the subject of the 2006 book and 2009 film The Blind Side. But the Finleys say the stories differ beyond white parents taking in black kids who go to Ole Miss from homes in Tennessee.

“Patrick and Big Mike are good friends,” Chris says. “They take vacations together every year.”

A family affair

Patrick’s brother Detris drowned in a swimming hole near town in 2006. Patrick delivered the eulogy at the funeral.

“I don’t know how he did that,” Chris says. “He’s a rock. He lets other people lean on him even when he should be leaning on everybody else.”

The Finleys had moved into a brick home in town after Patrick’s junior year at Ole Miss and Orey moved there with them, but when he got old enough to spread his wings they gave him the trailer to live in.

“Orey has a welding degree and refuses to use it, says it’s too hot,” Chris says. “He does odd jobs enough to keep the lights on. He’s a tinkerer. If he’s got a truck to work on in the yard, then he’s content.”

Ernicka graduated from Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., and her degree is in criminal justice, matching Patrick’s at Ole Miss, Chris says.

Patrick has new siblings, too. Chris and Julie have two kids: Parker, who’s 4, and Ava, who turns 3 a few days after the Super Bowl.

“We did the teenagers first,” Julie says, “so we know what we have to look forward to.”

If all goes as planned, some day Parker and Ava will go to Central, and their photos will go on the flip boards, where the motto for the first graduating class in 1929 reads: “Build for Character, Not for Fame.”

That seems a suitable motto for Patrick.

Sturdivant recalls getting phone calls from a dozen or so NFL teams before the 2007 draft. They all wanted to know what kind of kid he’d been and what sort of trouble he’d had.

“I would just tell them you can talk to everyone in Hollow Rock and Bruceton,” he says, “and you’ll find there is no one ever had a bad word to say about Patrick Willis.”

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