The impact of a star player on a football defense isn’t what it is on a basketball court. It’s watered down; you’re one person among 11 instead of one person among five. At least on the offensive side of a football field a team can offset the numbers disadvantage by putting the ball in the hands of its best player as much as possible, consciously maximizing the star’s impact. That’s how Eli Manning carried a group of otherwise moderately talented players to a Cotton Bowl victory.
No, that’s not the case on defense, where one man can only cover so much ground (even if he covers more ground than was thought humanly possible). Which is why Patrick Willis, who on Monday was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame after the most dominant career of any Ole Miss player ever, Mannings included, ended up on some of the program’s most dismal teams.
From the time Willis took over as a full-time starter as a sophomore in 2004 through his graduation three years later, the Rebels won a heaping total of six games. While Willis was leading the SEC in tackles in consecutive seasons, Ole Miss never finished higher than 68th nationally in defensive S&P+. While he was earning honors as the country’s best linebacker as a senior, his team went 2-6 in conference play.
But the mitigating circumstances surrounding Willis never did deter him. Not when he grew up dirt poor in central Tennessee without running water or electricity. Not when the neglect and abuse of his drug-addicted father forced him to essentially raise his three younger siblings on his own. Not after he finally contacted authorities during his junior year of high school and was placed alongside his brothers and sisters in a foster home.
Not when he was undervalued as a high school football recruit—the future No. 11 overall NFL Draft pick was rated just a three-star prospect and the country’s 60th-best linebacker by Rivals. Not when the coaches of his favorite college team, Tennessee, declined to shake his hand or offer him a scholarship during an unofficial visit to Knoxville. Not when he broke his finger during his junior season at Ole Miss and led the entire country in solo tackles while playing with a club-like cast on his right hand. None of those things ever slowed down Patrick Willis, because Patrick Willis had the indomitable internal drive and physical ability to do damn near whatever he made up his mind to do.
Except make an Ed Orgeron football team good. That Willis’ superhuman dominance came during the lost years of 2004-06 is one of the cruel directives of the football gods. In another time—perhaps alongside Robert Nkemdiche and Tony Conner a decade later—his abilities could have elevated the program to new heights.
Had Willis’ dominance come at quarterback or running back, he’d be mentioned among the Rebel faithful as the greatest Ole Miss football player of all time, full stop. But playing on the defensive side of the ball during a wasted era, his name is typically mentioned third at best, behind the mononymous deities, Archie and Eli.
Not that such a thing bothers Willis, who, despite the consensus all-american honors, the 2006 Butkus Award and Lambert Trophy as the nation’s best linebacker, the consecutive SEC Player of the Year awards, the seven Pro Bowls and five All-Pro selections and an induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, never did seem to be motivated by external accolades. It’s that burning internal drive to succeed despite the obstacles that defined Willis’ career.
“I never allowed myself to think anything negative like that,” Willis once told Yahoo Sports when asked what kept him from succumbing to his environment. “I just used the circumstances around me as a positive. It would have been so much easier to take the easy way out and say, ‘I can’t do it,’ but I just stuck to live experience. That’s always been the foundation for me, and everything’s just worked around that.”