NEW ORLEANS -- The old lion is about to stalk into the football jungle one last time Sunday night before retracting his claws for good.
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Mercedes-Benz Superdome, 1500 Poydras Street, New Orleans, LA 70112, USA
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."
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."