He hits like a freight train from the middle of the San Francisco 49ers' 3-4 defense. But don't call Patrick Willis "The Little Engine That Could". Patrick always knew he would.
As one of the most feared defensive players in the NFL, the guy people call “Boss” could be a little more consumed with rage. After all, Patrick’s name is mentioned among an elite (and intense) class of inside linebackers, including the likes of Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, and perhaps more honorifically, former LB great and current 49ers head coach Mike Singletary.
Patrick Willis is spirited, but not in a Ray Lewis in-your-face sort of way. Thoughtful and unassuming, Patrick mixed his strength training secrets with insightful words of wisdom during an off-season workout in North Hollywood. Like this candid piece of enlightenment Patrick shared with us, a thought-provoking gem he carved upon entering the league:
“When I was growing up, I had that story (The Little Engine That Could), saying ‘I think I can, I think I can.’ For the longest time, when times were tough, I would say ‘I think I can.’ Once I got older, I realized that when you ‘think,’ you leave doubt. When you say ‘I believe,’ there’s no doubt. For me, I’m a believer in what I’m doing.”
There’s certainly no doubt that Patrick has emerged as the NFL’s premier defensive player. When he exploded onto the scene in 2007, the rookie led the league with a remarkable 174 tackles, 135 of which were solo jobs. He led the league again in 2009.
And Patrick is just getting started. “You haven’t seen nothing yet. But it’s coming, I know that,” he forewarns. “It’s just the will I have,” he continues. “I feel like my will will be stronger than your will, and that’s how it is until you prove me wrong.”
Who’s the Boss?
If there’s an NFL player, or for that matter, any professional athlete, who owns the right to be mad at the world, his name is Patrick Willis. Not that the three-time All-Pro and leader of the 49ers has reason to be resentful these days. “I’m blessed to be where I am,” he proclaims between sets of Dumbbell Bench Presses.
But life wasn’t always this good. Patrick’s mother left when he was four. His father wasn’t home much either, but when he was, the Willis children were on the receiving end of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Around age 10, Patrick became “Boss” of the family. He went to school, hit the field for football practice, and returned home to cook dinner for his three younger siblings. Homework? Only after he helped his brothers and sister complete their overnight assignments.
“Keep your head up high,” was Patrick’s mantra through those tough times. “Stay positive, stay strong and believe,” is what he told himself day in and day out.
The going was tough, and the tough got going, though not by choice. When Boss was 16, the Willis children were removed from their father’s custody and nearly forced to move into separate foster homes across the state. Then an unlikely host family opened their doors. Patrick’s 24-year old basketball coach at Bruceton Central High School and his wife welcomed Patrick and his siblings into their home. This kind act of generosity enabled Patrick to remain at Central, which was especially important since he’d been starting to receive interest from college coaches.
Nobody, including Patrick’s student- peers, teachers and coaches, knew much about his home life. What you saw was what you got with Patrick: a quiet kid whose good-natured demeanor was coupled with extraordinary talent on the football field.
Patrick’s skills on both sides of the ball merited a nomination for Mr. Football on offense and defense, a first for any athlete in the state of Tennessee. Though he was named “Class 1A” Mr. Football on defense, Patrick admits that “people looked down on Class 1A football,” so his title was not honored by many. “We won every season, made it to the quarter-finals or the semi-finals. I did with what I had, and the way I saw it, if you could ball, you could ball.”
Not everyone had the same views though. Boss was set on suiting up for the Vols of UT. One problem: UT didn’t express much interest.
One school hot on Boss’ trail was Ole Miss. They were the only SEC team that came calling, according to Patrick. The Rebels wanted him in Oxford, and he wanted to be there. But Patrick’s struggles with the SAT presented a roadblock. The offer from Ole Miss stayed on the table during Patrick’s multiple retests, the last of which he and his guardian father “drove maybe five hours” to reach. “I took the SAT five times,” says an unashamed Patrick. “That shows how bad I wanted to go to a Division I school.”
Patrick qualified on the fifth and final attempt, and Ole Miss honored their word by offering him a scholarship.
Patrick embarked on his lifelong dream of playing Division I college football in the fall of 2003. He made honor roll as a freshman, but continued to fight adversity—such as when he battled through injury-ridden seasons during his first two years, and when his brother, Detris, drowned in a swimming hole back home in Bruceton, just a month prior to Patrick’s senior season. Boss gave the eulogy.
Still, Patrick wasn’t mad. In fact, he was the farthest thing from it. How did he manage to remain positive? Through such trying times, most would have turned cold on the world. Patrick’s response? “Never let another person’s opinion become your reality.” That’s the code he follows and proudly wears in the form of new ink added to his pipes this past summer—“I’m” on his inner right bicep, “Me” on the inner left.
“At the end of the day, I can only be the best I can be. I can only be me,” he says, explaining the meaning behind the tats. “When I’m done playing, I don’t want to measure myself (against) a guy that people compared me to. I want to look at myself and know that I gave it my all and have no regrets. If I can do that, then I’ll be happy being who I am. That’s me.”
Ask Patrick how he wants his legacy to be remembered, and he says, “That I came out every day and gave it my all, through tough times, through bad times, through tired times. When they talk about linebackers, they’re gonna mention my name, and they’re gonna say ‘that Patrick Willis was one bad boy.’”
Patrick Willis' Workout
It’s a long way from California to Bruceton, but Patrick carries a piece of home with every weight he lifts and every move he makes.
The day’s workout is nothing too advanced in the realm of performance training. However, the volume and intensity with which Patrick performs each lift is something to behold.
You see, instead of lifting weights back in the day, Patrick pressed bricks and concrete blocks, and pushed and pulled his body through “Push-Ups, Sit-Ups and Leg Raises.” Patrick’s uncle, a boxer, put him on to lifting weights and would cast off old barbells and weight benches to young Boss.
“I would take two concrete blocks and put them on the end of the bar and press that,” Patrick says. “Sometimes the blocks would slide off the bar, but that’s what I had, so I used that and made the best of it.”
In this workout, Patrick gets to work, pressing, shrugging and curling dumbbells. It’s easy to visualize the All-Pro beast punishing those lifts with blocks or bricks in his hands.
“If you were to put a name on this workout, what would it be?” Patrick is asked. “Homegrown,” he instantly replies.
Then, Patrick shoots a look toward a nearby squat rack and locks eyes on a barbell. It’s like his mind is on rewind, and, for a flash of a second, Boss is back in Bruceton, loading up the old metal bar with those concrete blocks in the dirt driveway of his pop’s house.
He snaps back to reality. “Homegrown, that’s it. From home … (pause) it’s what got me like this and where I am today,” he says, crossing his arms over his chest and patting his massive delts.
Patrick willed himself to greatness. Believe it.
Watch a video of Patrick Willis' off-season training routine and see him build shoulder strength for football.
Patrick Willis' Training
Weighted Sit-Up With Twist Combo
- Assume position on decline bench, holding plate tight to chest
- Perform set of Sit-Ups in controlled fashion
- Immediately perform set of Sit-Ups With Twist, holding plate in front of chest
- At top of movement, rotate left for one count, then right for one count
- Repeat for specified reps
Coaching Points: Keep core tight // Perform in controlled manner
Patrick: I feel like your body isn’t complete unless you hit the abs. If you have a really strong core, it allows you to do everything else.
- Lie with back on ground or bench with legs straight
- Raise legs until perpendicular to floor
- Return to start position; repeat for specified reps
Coaching Points: Avoid using momentum to swing legs // Keep legs straight // Keep head in neutral position
Patrick: Everything starts with your core and goes out from there. The core is my foundation.
Dumbbell Bench Press
- Assume position on bench with dumbbells at chest
- Without arching back, drive dumbbells toward ceiling until arms are fully extended
- Lower dumbbells with control to start position; repeat for specified reps
Sets/Reps: 2x8 (Warm-Up); 3x6-8
Coaching Points: Keep back flat and head on bench // Tuck elbows // Drive back against bench when pressing dumbbells // Perform in controlled manner
Patrick: When I was growing up, it was all about the Barbell Bench Press. Now, I want to make sure one arm is just as strong as the other, so I use dumbbells.
- Place left hand and left knee on bench and right leg on floor to side
- Hold dumbbell in right hand with palm facing inward
- Bring dumbbell to chest while keeping elbow tight to body
- Lower dumbbell to start position
Sets/Reps: 3x10 each arm
Coaching Points: Keep back flat, creating straight line with head, shoulders and back // Keep core tight // Squeeze shoulder blades at top of row // Perform in controlled manner
Patrick: If you’re doing a lot of Bench and a lot of work up front, you’ve got to make sure you’re equally working (your) back, too. If you take away from that, you’re not going to be as strong.
Alternating Dumbbell Curl/Hammer Curl Combo
- Hold dumbbells at sides with palms facing in
- In alternating fashion, curl each dumbbell to shoulder while rotating palm toward body
- Repeat for specified reps
- Immediately perform set of Alternating Hammer Curls with palms facing in throughout entire movement
Sets/Reps: 2x5 each arm, each exercise
Coaching Points: Grip dumbbells with as much force as possible // Don’t swing dumbbells
Patrick: I do curls to work on my biceps, and then throw Hammer Curls in there to work my forearms and different parts of my biceps. I go from lengthening to widening.
- Hold dumbbells at sides with palms facing in
- Keeping arms straight, shrug shoulders toward ears
- Lower shoulders to start position and repeat for specified reps
Coaching Points: Grip dumbbells with as much force as possible // Keep arms straight and dumbbells to side of body // Don’t roll shoulders forward
Patrick: I used to get shoulder stingers when I hit. I want to make sure my shoulders and traps are strong, because it will allow me to take hits and not feel it (and avoid) much wear and tear because the muscles will protect (them).
Dumbbell Front Raise
- Assume athletic stance holding dumbbells at sides
- Raise dumbbells in front and together until arms are parallel to ground
- Lower dumbbells with control to sides and repeat for specified reps
Coaching Points: Avoid rocking body to create momentum // Keep back flat and core tight // Maintain good posture
Patrick: You’re getting more work bringing the dumbbells from the side than it is just straight up and down. When I’m swinging my arms, it’s a similar action like when I go to make a tackle.