BRUCETON, Tenn. -- The San Francisco 49ers' 5-1 start will make more people recognize the true brilliance of their star linebacker, Patrick Willis. He's the man Baltimore Ravens' 12-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis anointed as the next great defender, and Willis already has four Pro Bowls of his own to support that claim.
The people who know Willis best also believe his character will receive more attention outside the Bay Area. For as great as he is on the field, what really makes him special is how gracefully he's handled his turbulent life.
The most impressive aspect of Willis is the devotion he still shows his troubled father, Ernest. As tonight's story on "E:60" will detail, their relationship has been as painful as it gets. By Patrick's recollection, Ernest was an alcoholic, a heavy drug user, and a man so abusive that he eventually had his four children taken from him by the state of Tennessee. By Patrick's recollection, Ernest also supplied his oldest son with the discipline to escape extreme poverty and the unyielding belief that you never turn your back on your family, no matter what.
That complicated combination of variables is what keeps Patrick Willis, 26, committed to the belief that his father will someday slay his inner demons. Many pro athletes would've turned their backs on such a patriarch by now. Patrick instead still believes in the possibility of Ernest's redemption.
"Patrick doesn't just worry about himself," said Ernicka Willis, Patrick's younger sister. "He doesn't know how to do that."
"I've never thought to ask myself why I haven't given up hope," Patrick Willis said. "But I have asked myself why I can't let it go and not just want him to do better. It's probably because I have a younger half-brother and half-sister that live with him now [Willis' father is remarried]. And I don't want them to go through the things I did growing up."
Those "things" that Patrick Willis referred to would make even the most hardened child psychologist marvel at his resolve. As a child, Patrick spent so much time caring for Ernicka and his younger brothers Orey and Detris -- long after Ernest vanished for the night -- that Ernicka sends him Father's Day cards. According to Patrick, Ernest often abused drugs so frequently that his children could only shake their heads when he advised them to avoid such destructive behavior. There's also the night that Ernest returned home drunk and lined his children up military-style, just so he could give them a stern lecture. When Detris started to doze off, Ernest battered him with a fierce four-punch combination that dropped his youngest son to the floor.
Patrick Willis was always too big to suffer such physical abuse, but he still felt his own hurt. When he was 13, he spent an entire summer working an $8-per-hour job for a logging company, all so he could save enough money to buy a pair of Air Jordans. But little by little, Ernest kept asking for loans -- supposedly to pay bills -- that Patrick knew were supporting his father's drug habit. By the end of the summer, Patrick had only $20 left.
When Ernest asked for that as well, Patrick broke down in front of Orey.
"The person who knew what I was going through was Orey," Patrick said. "And I'll never forget telling him, 'Man, this is crazy.' Tears were coming down my face and Orey said, 'Daddy's just gotta stop. How can he not see what he's doing is not right?' I'll never forget being so frustrated because it hurt so bad to do all that work and have nothing to show for it."
To understand how painful that night was for Patrick, just consider that his siblings had never seen him more devastated. Patrick didn't cry when his father was so strung out that he rarely attended any of Patrick's games at nearby Bruceton Central High School. Patrick also didn't tear up in 2006 when he received the news that Detris drowned during Patrick's junior year at Ole Miss, where he became a two-time All-American. Patrick ultimately became so numb to life during his childhood, "I started seeing my father as a stranger."
In many ways, the most disturbing part of growing up for Patrick was having a front-row seat to witness the steady deterioration of a man he loved so much.
Incredibly, that love is what Patrick Willis clings to today. When he talks about his father, he remembers when Ernest would take him hunting, introduce him to sports and play basketball with his kids, despite being dog-tired from a full day of work. He also respects the attempts Ernest made at raising all four of his children after Patrick's mother, Loretta Lynn Anderson, abandoned the family when Patrick was 4. Even when the Department of Children's Services confronted Ernest during Patrick's junior year in high school, Patrick was concerned with how it would affect his father.
Said former 49ers head coach and current Minnesota Vikings assistant Mike Singletary: "Patrick believes the best of people. You're never going to catch him talking about somebody because he knows he's not perfect. But so few people in life give you a second chance. And he is that kind of guy."
These days, Patrick Willis is just as concerned about his father. When "E:60" approached him about his story, his primary concern was how Ernest would be portrayed. Patrick didn't want the world to see a monster. He wanted people to understand a man who was destroyed by an inability to defeat his addictions.
"He really is a good guy," Willis said. "He was a good father because he could've easily just turned his back on us and he stuck in there. But he also had his ways, too, and just as anybody can be a good person, if you have bad ways, that's what gets the best of you."
The tough part for Willis is that he knows his upbringing ultimately led him to a place he'd always dreamed of reaching. Now he just wants his father to change his own life.
"I'd say we're actually closer now than in the 15 years I lived with him," Willis said. "Probably a year or two ago was the first time my daddy told me, 'I love you, Son.' Can you believe that? I was like 23 or 24. He said, 'Son, keep doing what you're doing. You got it going on for yourself. I love you, boy.' I was in so much shock I couldn't even cry."
That improved father-son bond is enough proof for Willis to keep believing in Ernest. It's also evidence of the same strength and resilience Willis brings to his game. That's because part of his growing relationship with his father may truly have something to do with Ernest finally understanding the damage he inflicted on Patrick during his childhood. The greater likelihood is that it has more to do with a son who has too much heart to abandon his own faith.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.