By Chris Cocoles
He’s come within a play of winning a Super Bowl, but San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis is already a champion on social media.
His Twitter feed (@PatrickWillis52) is far less about himself – refreshing in the look-at-me, selfie-obsessed Twittersphere – and more about his fans, which include 379,000 followers. Willis, who’s been an All-Pro linebacker through six of his first seven seasons in the National Football League, retweets photos of others wearing his red, white and gold No. 52 jersey and other 49ers gear.
Over on Instagram (@patricklwillis), the 29-year-old prefers posting the bass he loves to catch. And he catches a lot based on the number of pics he’ll share with another 281,000-plus followers.
That’s what Willis likes to do when he’s not one of pro football’s premier defenders. The Tennessee native who played college football at the University of Mississippi loves to get out on the water. But this is also a dedicated football player who delayed an interview request last fall during the season to focus on bringing a championship back to the Bay Area.
He’s come painfully close to winning it all, the 49ers losing two down-to-the-wire NFC championship games (to the New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks) sandwiched between a 34-31 Super Bowl XLVII near-miss against the Baltimore Ravens in the last three seasons.
So needless to say, Willis only has so much time to head to the Delta or Lake Berryessa where he’s fished over his offseason. He did take the time to chat with us about his Southern roots, fishing with fellow Southeastern Conference college football products and his quest for clutching the Vince Lombardi Trophy that goes to the champion.
Chris Cocoles When I see your Instagram and Twitter feeds it seems like every other photo is you with a fish and a huge smile on your face. Would you call fishing a passion?
Patrick Willis I would say right now it’s more of a hobby, because my passion right now is football. Fishing, right now, is more of a hobby for me, but when I’m done playing football, it’s going to definitely be my next passion.
CC How did you first discover fishing? Was it back home in the South?
PW My Uncle James and my Aunt Michelle, they always loved going fishing in the little rivers by the house. When I say rivers, I wouldn’t consider them creeks – they’re deeper than a creek. I would always go with him and I just got into fishing. I’m a country boy. There wasn’t anything to do but hunt, fish and play sports.
CC I think it was a year or two ago that you, Garrison Hearst and Takeo Spikes went striper fishing in Georgia. How much SEC smack talk was going on when you had an Ole Miss Rebel (yourself), a Georgia Bulldog (Hearst) and an Auburn Tiger (Spikes) together on a boat in competition?
PW That was my first time ever getting to meet Garrison Hearst. Of course, I’ve known Takeo forever. He’s a true Auburn Tiger fan to the fullest, and with Garrison going to Georgia, we talked a little smack about SEC football. But for the most part we were mostly out there bragging about who was catching the bigger fish.
CC I’m sure you and former 49er teammate Randy Moss have experienced some good fishing tales in your excursions. Can you share one?
PW He and I were fishing one time and still, to this day, it’s one of the best pleasures I’ve had fishing with a guy like Randy Moss. First of all, in the sports world, he’s one of the best to ever do it. And for him to come here and be down to earth like he was and wanting to go fishing, I’m thinking, “Man, Randy Moss wants to go fishing with me?’”
We went out there and went fishing, and we were actually fishing in a friend’s pond. And for some reason, he wanted to use a frog, and I was like, “Man, you’re going to throw this frog?” And he said, “Watch, I’m telling you,” you know how he talks country, “I’m going to catch this fish.” Next thing you know, he’s cranking it – just cranking it and cranking it. Next thing you know, he caught a nice little bass on a frog, just doing something different with it. That’s probably the best experience with him.
CC I would guess you have some great places to fish back home in Tennessee, but what are your favorite fishing spots in California?
PW My favorite fishing spots in California – I just like to hit them all. But I’ve really grown to like the Delta fishing. The last couple of times I’ve went it’s been pretty good. And I think the fishing up north is a lot better than it’s down here in San Jose.
CC Do you have a fishing dream destination you hope to hit some day?
PW I was just talking to a some of the guys, I believe it was (kicker) Phil (Dawson) and (punter) Andy (Lee), we were all in the steam room and I was telling them that one of things I want to do when I’m done playing is that I want to go to all the major bass spots and try and fish in them. Then I want to turn around and go and learn how to fly fish, then turn around and, well, just go all over. One of the places I wanted to fish one day is out of the country, but I want to go fish in something like the Nile River. I’m a big fan of River Monsters. I love what (host Jeremy Wade) does. That’s something I would be more than willing to do.
CC Football is such a game of intensity, particularly at your linebacker spot, where it seems like you are a quarterback of that defense and always in deep thought. When you get a chance to unwind and fish in the offseason, is that a great release for you getting away from football?
PW It is. Anytime I’m fishing, my mind is just clear and I’m out there just casting. But really, I’m always thinking about football. I’m always thinking about what can I do today to have my body right for tomorrow, or, because if I’m not actually out here on the field I’m going to do some type of training, whether it’s weightlifting, running or playing a little basketball. I’m going to do something active in a way that it’ll help me be better on the field.
CC Is there a favorite bass lure in your tackle box?
PW Right now, my two favorites are spinning baits and little beetles. They (beetles) only dive about 3 to 5 feet. I love using them right now. And I love to use the worms – Senko worms, I fell in love with those and actually, I use dropshot worms. I like those too.
CC The 49ers have put together quite a run of consistent excellence the last three years, with two NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl appearance. How much does breaking through with a Super Bowl championship drive you as head into the 2014 season?
PW We’ve been blessed to have, the last few years, some good runs. For me, this year, I really want to capitalize by winning a Super Bowl. For as long as I’m playing, that’s going to be one of my goals. At this point in my career, going into my eighth year, nobody can say how much longer I’m going to play this game. There are only three accolades I want. One individual accolade would be Defensive Player of the Year, and the second one would be the Super Bowl, multiple if that, but one I would take! And third, man, one day when it’s all said and done, to put on that gold jacket (with the Pro Football Hall of Fame).
CC If you weren’t playing football, would it be a dream to be a professional bass tournament angler, and how do you think you’d do?
PW That’s not even a question. If I wasn’t playing football I would love to try and get in there. Most guys want to be, obviously, try and be like (Dallas Cowboys quarterback) Tony Romo and get on the PGA Tour and things like that. But I would love to try and get into the Bassmasters Classic. One of these days, I’m going to actually fish a tournament. As far as how I would do? I’m not sure. But I would go in with the same kind of passion I go with trying to be the best on the field. I would try and do the same thing in fishing. If I had a bad day, I would try to come back the next day and have a better day. If I had a good day that day, I would try and go back and have a better day. I’m always looking to get better. CS