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49ers' Patrick Willis poised to replace Ray Lewis as NFL's 'Lion King'

FootballRay LewisSan Francisco 49ersNFLBaltimore RavensPatrick Willis

NEW ORLEANS -- The old lion is about to stalk into the football jungle one last time Sunday night before retracting his claws for good.

And the young lion is eager to pounce on the throne that retiring Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis has owned for 17 years.

San Francisco 49ers star inside linebacker Patrick Willis has a deep respect for Lewis, his longtime friend and mentor, but he can't wait to become the new Lion King.

Ever since Willis forged a relationship with Lewis, built through their mutual friendship with former 49ers coach and Ravens linebackers coach Mike Singletary, the 28-year-old six-time Pro Bowl selection has referred to Lewis as Mufasa, as in the Lion King.

"Yes, that is what I call him anytime I shoot him a text or meet him," Willis said. "By no stretch of the imagination am I calling him a king. I'm just calling him a king in this game and what it's about and what he's been able to do at the linebacker position. He holds that. He holds that crown for the way to play the middle linebacker position and the way it's been played for a long time. That's why I call him Mufasa."

As the Ravens and 49ers square off in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the two defensive captains' skills will be on display before the world.

Both wear the No. 52, Lewis sporting the number he thrust into popularity and Willis wearing it in a salute to the man he has emulated ever since he first noticed him on the John Madden video game.

A 13-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Lewis is striving to win his second Vince Lombardi Trophy in his final game before retirement. Willis is chasing his first Super Bowl ring.

"P. Willis, that's a young lion, man, that I talk to a lot," Lewis said. "We just got to texting days ago. He was just really talking about the feeling and how surreal it is for him. Since he has come into this league, I've always been [talking with him], since we met each other at the Pro Bowl and I knew his story and why he wears 52 and all that.

"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 on how to get better: 'You should do this, you should do that.' We talk a lot. He's a great, great, great young man, and I'm really excited for him and happy for him as well."

'A lot of similarities'

Instinctive, quick-striking, cerebral and athletic, Willis is the archetype of the classic middle linebacker.

He has a similar build to Lewis', as both are 6 feet 1, 240 pounds.

The biggest diferences: age and accomplishments.

"You know, there are a lot of similarities," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsomesaid. "I think Patrick was bigger coming out [of college], though, than Ray was. I don't know him as personally as I know Ray, but I can say this: If he has anywhere the qualities of leadership that Ray has, then the Yorks [the 49ers owners] and [coach] Jim [Harbaugh] and [general manager] Trent [Baalke], they've got something special."

Once he joined the 49ers in 2007, Willis had his choice of jersey numbers. He didn't hesitate when given the opportunity to wear his idol's trademark No. 52.

"I said to myself, 'Why don't I get the number 52? I know a guy right now who wears that number who is one of the best. It will be a great number to play up to.'" Willis said. "That's kind of how it came about."

As he progressed in a career that's expected to land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in five years when he's eligible, Lewis has often provided advice to younger players like Willis. His connection with Willis quickly grew through their shared spirituality and passion for the game.

"I got a chance to shake his hand then my rookie year, but really got a chance to get to know him a little bit when we were at the Pro Bowl," Willis said. "We sat down outside by the pool, where all the guys hang out, and we just talked. I recall his wise words.

"He passed some of his wisdom over to me. I'm the type of person, I'm a big fan of those who have been there and done that. I've always had respect for him."

'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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