The number 52 is indeed an odd number in sports. Never before has the number 52 been recognized as a great digit. There were some solid players in the NFL that wore the number 52 in their heyday like Mike Webster (center for the Pittsburgh Steelers), Robert Brazile (linebacker for the Houston Oilers, now Tennessee Titans), Frank Gatski (center for the Cleveland Browns) and Ted Johnson (linebacker for the New England Patriots).
But Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis put the number 52 on the level of Hall of Famers Michael Johnson with 23, Joe Montana with 16 and Earvin “Magic” Johnson with 32; to name a few. With Lewis stepping aside, a new host for the number 52 is ready to take center stage to cement the legacy of the newly-famed digit in San Francisco 49ers’ linebacker Patrick Willis.
“I think in a couple years, people are going to come along and say, ‘Is that 52 Patrick Willis?’” said 49ers’ outside linebacker Aldon Smith. “He’s his own guy. He’s making his own name. That’s a whole different guy, that’s Patrick Willis. No disrespect to Ray Lewis. Ray’s a great guy and he’s done so much for this league and it’s much appreciated, but that’s Patrick Willis.”
Willis has been in the Pro Bowl each season of his six-year career, as he registered 812 tackles, 17.5 sacks, 49 pass defenses, seven interceptions, and two touchdowns. He is as passionate as Lewis about the game of football, but unlike the original 52 in Baltimore who had to build a winning tradition, the 49ers’ 52 is carrying a tradition of winning with a Pro Bowl caliber core surrounding them.
Other than being outspoken like Lewis, Willis takes the silent approach, humbly.
“I’ve never been a man of comparing because we are all our own person,” said Willis. “We all have something different. We all have something that makes us who we are. As far as comparing, he plays the game with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. I play with the same kind of passion and enthusiasm. I may not get up and go as crazy as he does at times, but inside when a play is made or something is going good, I burn. I burn inside with that same kind of feeling. I just don’t show it as much.”
For the last 17 seasons when offenses around the NFL lined up across the number 52, signal callers, offensive linemen and running backs would normally second guess themselves because those digits would jump out before their eyes due to the fear and intelligences of Lewis.
Among young linebackers today, the 52 is sought out more because of Lewis. Green Bay Packers’ linebacker Clay Matthews is presenting the number well, and newcomers in Akeen Dent of the Atlanta Falcons and Keenan Robinson of the Washington Redskins look to perform outstanding under the power of the number 52.
As of right now, Willis will pick up where the establisher of the number 52 will leave off Sunday evening, around 11:40 p.m.
“People always want to make comparisons and talk about torches, but at the end of the day, I can only be the best player I can be,” said Willis. “If at the end of the day, I can look at the mirror and ask myself: Did I give my all?
“I see a man that plays with passion, I see a man that plays with enthusiasm every play,” said Willis when asked about Lewis.
“I see a man who’s a leader. I see a man who made a difference by the way he played the middle linebacker position. That’s one of those things that someday, when a young kid looks at me, when another teammate looks at me, and they watch the film, I hope to have that kind of feel to the game. I hope to have that kind of eye. He’s the Mufasa of this league right now.”