NFL: Willis primed to take torch from Lewis

Six-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis says he welcomes the chance to take on the role as the NFL's premier linebacker which will be left vacant by the retirement of Ray Lewis.

"I have always tried to play with the kind of passion I've seen Ray Lewis play with," the San Francisco 49ers star Willis said. "I can only hope that when people see me play they go, 'Wow. That's a bad dude.'"

With his play the last few seasons, Willis has seemed like the logical successor to Baltimore Ravens veteran linebacker Lewis who is retiring after 17 seasons.

But first, the two will face each other in Super Bowl 47 on Sunday at the Superdome in New Orleans.

The 27-year-old Willis has made five All-Pro teams, just two less than Lewis. And like Lewis, Willis wears No. 52 and chooses to refer to his idol as "Mufasa" while Lewis calls him "Young Lion".

"He's the closest thing to Ray's level," said Baltimore running back Ray Rice. "He plays the game the right way. He's a tenacious player. I have a lot of respect for that guy."

Willis quickly made a name for himself on some sub-par San Francisco teams after being taken with the 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft.

The 49ers won just 26 games in Willis' first four seasons before Jim Harbaugh came in as head coach and reversed their fortunes.

"There were times in my first four years there was no question in my mind, this is the year, we're going to make these playoffs, we're going to make a run," said Willis, who had 120 tackles this regular season. "I always thought if we could just get in these playoffs we have a team that could make a run, we just couldn't get over that hump."

Willis has reserved a portion of his 15 Super Bowl tickets for a Tennessee family that helped raise him.

Willis' mother walked out on the family and his father was a drug addict so Chris and Julie Finley took Willis and his three younger siblings into their home to live with them as Patrick was entering his final year of high school.

"Growing up, I always loved the story of Cinderella. That's how I felt about my life sometimes," Willis said.

"I will forever be grateful for what they did for us."