The pregame ritual has become a fixture of this remarkable 49ers season. All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis gathers teammates around him in a tight huddle and loudly whips them into a frenzy.
For those who have known Willis the longest, back in the small western Tennessee community of Bruceton, watching him lead with his vocal cords is a strange sight.
"Boss always led by example," said his high school coach Rod Sturdivant, referring to Willis by his childhood nickname. "He tended to keep everything inside."
That included the details of a traumatic, impoverished upbringing. Occasionally working cotton fields beginning at age 10 to help his family. Essentially raising his three younger siblings. Turning in his father to authorities for physically abusive behavior.
Michael Oher, Willis' college teammate, had his inspirational story chronicled in the film "The Blind Side."
San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre, who recruited Willis to Ole Miss, believes Hollywood missed a better tale.
"You could do a movie on Patrick Willis that would be just as compelling," MacIntyre said. "There's something inside him, some sort of fortitude, that's just made him step through a lot of stuff."
Those hardships fueled Willis' drive toward becoming perhaps the NFL's best linebacker and the 49ers' unquestioned leader.
"I think all the time about the way I grew up and the choices that I made and how that affected where I am," Willis
Choosing a better life
The aluminum trailer is what MacIntyre remembers most.
"It was just unbelievable where they lived," MacIntyre said. "It had holes in it."
The double-wide, situated at the end of a dirt road, had a sheet of plywood for a door. That was where Willis became "Boss," the man of the house even as a child to brothers Detris and Orey, and sister Ernicka.
Their mother left the scene when Willis was 4. Their father had custody, but Willis did the cooking and odd jobs for money -- which he said his dad would fritter away on alcohol and drugs.
Willis found refuge as a three-sport star, recognizing the possibilities athletics offered for escape. He became, in Sturdivant's words, "the biggest thing to ever hit Bruceton." But the coach also had suspicions that something wasn't right at home because of the Willis kids' repeated visits to the school counselor's office.
It came to a head in May 2002, when a family pickup basketball game turned violent. Patrick, then a high school junior, prevented his father, Ernest, from striking Ernicka.
Willis, deciding this couldn't go on, reported his father. The four kids were destined to be placed in different foster homes around Tennessee when school basketball coach Chris Finley and his wife, Julie -- both 25-year-old teachers, white and married less than a year -- offered to take in all four African-American teenagers.
"We just wanted to help out kids who we knew," Finley said. "We never imagined that we were making a commitment for the rest of our lives. But Patrick truly has blessed our lives more than we've blessed his. "
For the first time, Willis had a real home.
"It's hard for me to explain, but I've always said that the good Lord puts people in our corners for a reason," Willis said. "And I had them in my corner when I needed them."
Sturdivant, also the baseball coach, sat next to Willis on a bus trip the day after they were removed from the trailer.
"Patrick told me, 'Coach, now I get to go to college anywhere I want and not have to worry about my brothers and my sister,' " said Sturdivant, now superintendent of the Hollow Rock-Bruceton Special School District. "You just don't know the enormous pressure that child must have been under, knowing he had a dream but that he couldn't leave the people who needed him. You could see the relief."
MacIntyre, who made sure the dream happened with a scholarship offer, spoke at Willis' senior football banquet months later.
"He had just won all the awards, and afterwards he's the kid helping the janitor clean the floor and put up the chairs," MacIntyre said. "That's when I really knew he was a special young man."
At Ole Miss, Willis bonded with teammates from similar hardscrabble backgrounds such as Oher, the Baltimore Ravens lineman whom he calls "Big Mike." His roommate, safety Charles Clark, remembers returning to their dorm room late one night after a party to find Willis, in the dark, doing sit-ups in his bed.
"When you've been fighting your whole life just to have clothes, food and do normal things in life, playing a game that you love is easy," said Clark, the SJSU defensive backs coach. "Patrick never let any of that stuff hold him back or be used as an excuse for him."
That included the 2006 drowning death of his brother Detris.
A born leader
Willis, 26, was an NFL star almost from the moment he put on the 49ers uniform. He has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his five seasons.
He also has been reticent to delve too deeply into his childhood. But in October, Willis allowed ESPN to do an intensely personal story in which the three surviving siblings talked of growing up in extreme poverty and the abuse they endured.
"That shocked everybody around here," Sturdivant said. "I don't think anybody knew it was as bad as it really was."
Willis said he opened up because it might help others.
"Whether it's a kid going through that situation and doesn't feel like he has a chance or a parent that might not be handling a tough situation the right way, people need to know they can do better," Willis said.
Saturday, the Finleys will be at Candlestick Park for the 49ers' playoff game against the New Orleans Saints. Chris Finley also is amazed that the quiet youth he helped raise now is the man shouting in the middle of the pregame gathering.
"But Patrick always was a leader," he added. "There's no doubt about that."