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NEW ORLEANS — When Chris and Julie Finley told the kids they were going to watch Patrick play football, they didn't understand.

"Why aren't we getting on an airplane?" 4-year-old Trevor asked.

Chris Finley was there for almost all of Patrick Willis' games this year, but the rest of the family — which includes Ava, 2 — attended only games at Candlestick Park, which meant a cross-country flight to San Jose. This time they were packing up the Ford Explorer and driving the eight hours from Bruceton, Tenn., to New Orleans, where Willis was preparing for the most important contest of his life.

"I don't know if words can describe how proud you are," Chris said. "It's more the off-the-field stuff. I mean, the last two years and the winning seasons and the playoffs, and now the Super Bowl, that's great, and that makes great articles. But just knowing Patrick over the last 11 years, and the person that he is, and the person that he wants to be, how good he is with our kids ..."

None of the 49ers or Baltimore Ravens players who will suit up for Super Bowl XLVII today got here by themselves. Each had people who influenced, shaped and nurtured them along the way. For Willis, no one was more important than the Finleys, who took in him and a brother at a most difficult time in their lives and got both headed in a positive direction.

Willis has seen the Finleys, both 36, only sporadically this week, for a few meals. But he feels their presence in the midst of Super Bowl chaos.

"Whether they're with me right now or not, I know that I'll always have their support," Willis said. "I know they'll always be behind me, whether we're a million miles away or whether we're next door, in the same hotel. That's just the feeling they bring to me, and that's the feeling I know they have. I love those guys."

Willis' story has been well documented by now. His mother abandoned her four children when they were young. His dad, Ernest, by all accounts well-meaning, proved not entirely suited for the job, and Patrick, the oldest child, took on many of the responsibilities of fatherhood. Ernest lost custody after hitting his daughter, Ernicka, during a family basketball game.

At the time, in 2002, both Finleys were teaching — Chris at Bruceton Central High School and Julie at the adjacent elementary school. Chris had coached Patrick in basketball for three years and knew the boy well. He and Julie agreed to take in all four kids.

It was quite an undertaking. The Finleys were 25, living in a 1,600-square-foot, four-bedroom, two-bath single-wide trailer, and they soon found they didn't have the time to properly care for four children. Though it grieved them, the Finleys allowed the Department of Children's Services to place the younger Willis children, Ernicka and Detris, with a foster family. Four years later, Detris would drown in a swimming hole near town, the summer before his senior year of high school.

Patrick and his brother Orey stayed in the single-wide, where the Finleys ran a tight ship. Patrick, a budding football and basketball star, had to finish his homework at school before practice, then do his chores before dinner.

It was after their first Christmas, Chris and Julie said, that the boys truly felt like family. Patrick and Orey conspired with Chris to buy Julie a camera, and couldn't wait for her to open the present.

Patrick still calls Chris "Coach" and Julie "Miss Julie," though to others he refers to them as his mom and dad. They did not adopt him, but became his legal guardians.

If the story sounds a bit like "The Blind Side," Michael Lewis' book that became a movie starring Sandra Bullock, the connections go even deeper. Patrick Willis played football with Michael Oher — the real-life Big Mike of "The Blind Side" — at the University of Mississippi, and they remain close friends. And now Oher is Willis' Super Bowl opponent, the Ravens' starting right tackle.

When Patrick left for Mississippi to play football, the Finleys worried after him like any parents. He was a quiet kid who tended to mumble. "His first year at Ole Miss, we were scared to death he was never gonna find his classes," Chris said.

They needn't have fretted. Willis, despite his reserve, always had a precocious maturity.

"Sometimes I think when we took him in at 25, he was more an adult than us," Julie said. "He would discipline his younger siblings even then. He would set 'em down and he would talk to 'em like a father. When his brother Detris passed, he was the one who spoke at the funeral, and he didn't choke up. He was just the adult."

Willis' stepmother, Amanda, still has a letter Patrick wrote when he was a freshman in high school, penned on the back of a car poster. Paraphrasing, Chris Finley said the letter read: "We don't have a whole lot, but we've got family. And Lord willing, one day I will play in the NBA or NFL."

The Finleys always saw a spark in Willis. He seemed to make the right decision at every turn, and his work ethic was incredible. At Ole Miss, they watched him morph from a skinny, lightly recruited linebacker into the fearsome player the 49ers would select with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 draft.

Willis has made the Pro Bowl in each of his six NFL seasons, and has become the face of the 49ers' defense. Now he is about to play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. It's sometimes hard for Chris and Julie to comprehend his stardom.

The summer after Patrick's senior year, the Finleys decided they had to take him and Orey to see the ocean. They were worried the boys would never have the basic life experiences they felt everyone deserves.

"We thought we were really doing something, taking them in a car to Panama City (Fla.)," Julie said. "And now we've traveled the country following him around."

Despite his fame, Willis has not severed his roots. He comes back to Bruceton two or three times a year and stays with the Finleys, who have since moved to a small house in town. Chris and Julie sleep with Trevor and Ava and give up their bedroom to Patrick.

"When he comes home, he takes out our trash," Julie said. "It's the same old Patrick."

Meanwhile, Willis' two families have grown a bit closer. There was never open hostility after the boys went to live with the Finleys, but there had been a chill until a reunion put together a year ago. It was held at the Central High gym — "a neutral site," as Chris called it — and the Finleys attended along with Willis' biological family, everyone singing karaoke together. Willis used to have to schedule separate dinners when he visited Bruceton. Now he can gather everybody for one.

The Finleys stress that Ernest Willis' contributions have been invaluable, too.

"Ernest did a great job," Chris said. "Patrick was 'yes, sir; no, sir.' Orey was 'yes, sir; no, sir.' And that doesn't come naturally. That has to come from Dad doing what he was supposed to do, the best he could do, to raise those kids."

This week, Patrick Willis assigned the Finleys to distribute his tickets. Each participating player is allowed to purchase 15 Super Bowl tickets. Doling them out can be one of the headaches of Super Bowl week.

"How do you tell your family you don't have any?" Julie said.

The Finleys have conducted some business of their own; Ava's birthday party is coming up, and when they met with The Press Democrat at the 49ers' team hotel, there was a stack of pink envelopes on the table, stuffed with invitations. Willis, with practice and meetings every day and a curfew every night, hasn't been able to spend a lot of quality time with his guardians in New Orleans. He knows it's coming.

"They understand this week is a work week for me, and they're down here enjoying themselves, and rightfully so," Willis said. "If we win this game, then we'll all get to celebrate together."

(You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.)

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