Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC West [Print without images]

Wednesday, September 9, 2009
49ers' Willis brings down the hammer

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Getty Images
Linebacker Patrick Willis, shown taking cues from 49ers coach Mike Singletary, cannot tolerate opponents putting him on the ground.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Retired NFL players tend to miss the camaraderie. The 49ers' Patrick Willis will miss the violence.

Nine months after obliterating Jets receiver Brad Smith -- view the devastation 57 seconds into this highlight video -- Willis welcomed a chance to relive it.

"Oh, man, it felt amazing," he said. "I'm not going to lie."

Or lay down. The hit on Smith came a few plays after an unknown Jets player put Willis on the ground.

"I got up and it's the worst feeling," Willis said. "I cannot stand being on the ground unless I'm hitting somebody else. I feel like somebody just tried to take my manhood from me. At all costs, the only time I'm going to be on the ground is if I'm delivering the lick."
Cary Edmondson/US Presswire
Patrick Willis recalls the hit he put on Jets receiver Brad Smith: 'Oh, man, it felt amazing.'

The conversation reinforces what's apparent from watching Willis on the field. Among NFC West players, perhaps only the Cardinals' Adrian Wilson projects strength, power and ferocity to such degrees. Both can knock out an opponent at any time.

Willis, unable to identify which Jets player knocked him down during the 49ers' 24-14 victory in Week 14, found Smith to be an inviting target. Strong safety Michael Lewis was chasing Smith across the middle when the receiver seemed to notice Willis approaching from the front. Smith slowed and started to duck. Lewis was tackling Smith from behind when Willis lowered his shoulder and hit Smith high, twisting Smith's body awkwardly. The sound at impact might have sickened a neurologist, but not Willis.

"Sometimes the ones that look like they shouldn't hurt are the ones that hurt, and the ones that look like they don't hurt just kill you," he said. "This one felt good. When I hit him, people don't understand, I didn't really hit him with everything I had because I was still getting over a rib injury that I was dealing with from the Buffalo game."

Against the Cardinals last season, Willis hit tight end Leonard Pope in the ribs with a shot that also knocked the air from Willis' lungs. As a rookie, Willis once thought his shoulder "came out of the socket" during a hit on Steelers receiver Hines Ward. He recalled his entire right side giving out for two or three plays, to the point where Willis told then-teammate Derek Smith he feared what might happen if the Steelers ran the ball in his direction. The hit on Smith might be his most devastating one yet.

"People don't understand it, but I don't know how you can get a thrill like that," Willis said. "You get angry, you get mad, you just go and just put it all in someone else."