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.