Willis won't accept LB torch from Lewis
Honolulu, HI: NFC linebacker Patrick Willis exchanges jerseys with AFC linebacker Ray Lewis after the 2012 Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium. (USA Today Images)
The comparisons of Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis are inevitable.
Both are inside linebackers listed at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds. Both wear No. 52. Both are in the Super Bowl that will be played between the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
“That’s a young lion that I talk to a lot,” said Lewis, 37, who leads the Ravens with team-leading 44 tackles in three postseason games. “We just got to texting two days ago. He was just really talking about the feeling and how surreal it is for him.”
Willis is 10 years younger, and he has been a tackling machine for the 49ers through six seasons. He had 120 or more in five of them. His 97 were a career low last year as he missed three games with an injury and Willis is asked more to drop in coverage and blitz less because of the effectiveness of the 49ers' front line in getting pressure.
His ability to chase sideline-to-sideline is reminiscent of Lewis, who won the 2001 Super Bowl MVP in the Ravens’ only other appearance. Willis chose No. 52 because it was one of the few numbers available and Lewis already wore it.
“I'm just a big fan of his, period. Just his enthusiasm on the field, just his passion that he plays with. I've always been a big fan of those who play with passion, such as Ray Lewis,” Willis said. “I know people always want to make comparisons and talk about torches, but at the end of the day, I've always said -- I can only be the best player that I can be.”
Lewis has fraternized with Willis at Pro Bowls where they got to know each other. They've got a combined 19 selections. The all-star game is at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu this Sunday (NBC, 7 p.m. ET).
Lewis missed 10 games this season with a torn triceps and returned in time for the playoffs. Willis has been voted to the Pro Bowl in each of his seasons, but there’s a more important game for both to play the following Sunday.
“It’s a special story to become close with him like that. I always try to throw the smallest tidbits out to help his career out, to help him (know) how to get better,” Lewis said. “He’s a great, great, great young man, and I’m really excited for him and happy for him as well.”
Lewis is a father figure to teammates such as running back Ray Rice. He helped left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who has had issues with conditioning, get in top form in time to regain his starting job for the playoffs by sending him diet suggestions. Lewis doesn't mind extending it to opponents in the Super Bowl.
“Ray's one of those guys that loves to give his wisdom, give his knowledge,” Willis said. “I'm the type of guy who loves to listen. Anybody who's been there and done that, especially at his caliber who's played there a long time, and has been consistently amazing at what he does, I could sit down and listen all day long.”