Saturday marks the end of another era at Ole Miss.
Three years ago while Eli Manning was making his triumphant final run as a Rebel, a little-known linebacker from Hollow Rock, Tenn., was just getting his career started.
Patrick Willis barely made a blip on the recruiting radar when he signed with Ole Miss in February of 2003. His grades were an issue, and many coaches didn't know how he'd fare in the SEC after facing little competition at Bruceton Central High School.
Now four years later, Willis has emerged as one of the best players in Ole Miss history, a lock for All-SEC, All-American and the NFL Draft.
Any Ole Miss fan knows the struggles that Willis has gone through to get to this point. He overcame a nearly unlivable home life to come to Ole Miss and found a way to cope with the unspeakable tragedy of the death of his younger brother, Detris, this summer. There were the multitude of injuries last year and the overwhelming pressure to declare for the NFL Draft after his junior season.
Willis toughed it out because he knew Ole Miss needed him, almost as much as he needed Ole Miss four years ago. Even as the Rebels' losses mounted this year, there was a constant in the Red and Blue of Ole Miss. Every game No. 49 came to play and on Saturday no matter the final score or overall record for the Rebels, Willis will close his college career as a champion in the hearts and minds of Ole Miss fans.
"It's going to be exciting and sad at the same time. It's not going to be that much sadness," Willis said. "I think I've done a lot in my career. I've given a lot and a lot has been given to me."
The four-year career has seen Willis amass 342 tackles, 11 sacks, four fumble recoveries and an interception. Saturday should see him easily go over the 350 tackle mark for his career.
While the 2003 campaign will be the only one where Willis saw a winning record, he took a very valuable lesson in how to be a role model from the Rebels' quarterback that year.
"I think just getting here, with it being Eli's senior year, he was the big thing around here. I've tried to give Ole Miss a player, now I'm not as big as him or anything, but someone to talk about for the past few years, someone to cheer for and be proud of," Willis said. "I really don't know, I think I've done that."
Modest as always.
That's the thing about Willis, he never complains, he never talks big. When things go right he credits his teammates, when things go wrong he says it's up to him to fix them as team captain. When Ole Miss wins, the credit is to the coaches, if the Rebels lose, hat's off to their opponent.
And with the Rebels sitting at 3-8, preparing for the Egg Bowl, Willis could just as easily be sitting in a large house somewhere preparing for his NFL game on Sunday. He chose instead to return to Ole Miss for his final year with his senior teammates. It's a decision he doesn't regret.
This week, he's focusing on the Egg Bowl.
"It would mean a lot for us. This is the last ball game and going into the offseason with training and recruiting, having the Egg Bowl means a lot to us and we want it back here, Willis said. "(The seniors) want to give the program all we have this last weekend, this last ball game."
As proud as Willis will be to take the field Saturday, he'll do so again with a heavy heart knowing there is an empty seat in the stands.
"This year has been a blessing. I've really enjoyed playing the games. Emotionally it's been sad because I wish my little brother had chance to watch me play my senior year," Willis said. "I wanted to have a chance to watch him play his senior year in high school. He's been my motivation this year."
But he knows that four years of hard work will pay off soon in the National Football League.
"Just thinking about my younger siblings and my family and the things hopefully I'll be able to do for them really soon."
It seems that he's already done plenty.