'He's his own guy'

Sunday's Super Bowl would be an ideal time for Willis to emerge on a national stage and become more widely recognized for the status he's already earned as one of the top defensive players in the game.

After reaching the NFC title game last year and losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the 49ers are in the big game as Willis has spearheaded a stingy defense.

Is Willis ready to trump his role model?

"I think in a couple years, people are going to come along and say, 'Is that 52 Patrick Willis?'" 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith said. "He's his own guy. He's making his own name."

While Lewis is known for his animated, emotional style where he'll cry, laugh and profess his Christian faith, Willis has a low-key personality.

Willis speaks in a quiet tone and doesn't seek the spotlight, but he's regarded as one of the most ferocious tacklers in the game.

"That's a whole different guy, that's Patrick Willis," Smith said. "No disrespect to Ray Lewis. Ray's a great guy and he's done so much for this league and it's much appreciated, but that's Patrick Willis."

Willis is off to a fast start to his NFL career, registering 1,029 tackles, 17 1/2 sacks, seven interceptions, 14 forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. He's having a stellar season this year with 171 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

They're impressive numbers, but they don't exceed the manner in which Lewis excelled when he was Willis' age and piling up roughly 200 tackles per season.

"I've never been a man of comparing because we are all our own person," Willis said. "We all have something different. We all have something that makes us who we are. As far as comparing, he plays the game with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. I play with the same kind of passion and enthusiasm. I may not get up and go as crazy as he does at times, but inside when a play is made or something is going good, I burn. I burn inside with that same kind of feeling. I just don't show it as much."

Willis attributes his resolve to succeed to being hardened emotionally through a difficult childhood in which he was separated from his biological father and adopted in 2002. His brother Detris drowned in 2006.

"People always want to make comparisons and talk about torches, but at the end of the day, I can only be the best player I can be," Willis said. "If at the end of the day, I can look at the mirror and ask myself: Did I give my all?'"

'He's the Mufasa'

Making it to Super Bowl XLVII offers Lewis an opportunity to walk away after reaching the pinnacle of NFL success.

Lewis is regarded as the standard bearer at his position, separating himself from the pack of great defensive players with his ability to diagnose plays.

"'The Great Mufasa,' we can't get enough words about him," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "He probably is a shoe-in first-ballot Hall of Famer. I'm just glad I had the opportunity to play in the last game with him, and it's the biggest game in the world."

Despite missing the final 10 games of the regular season with a torn right triceps that required surgery — and dealing with declining range to track down outside runs and shut down passing lanes — Lewis leads all players in the playoffs with 44 tackles.

And his emotional leadership is considered to be unparalleled in NFL circles.

"I see a man that plays with passion, I see a man that plays with enthusiasm every play," Willis said of Lewis. "I see a man who's a leader. I see a man who made a difference by the way he played the middle inebacker position.

"That's one of those things that someday, when a young kid looks at me, when another teammate looks at me, and they watch the film, I hope to have that kind of feel to the game. I hope to have that kind of eye. He's the Mufasa of this league right now."

awilson@baltsun.com

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