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Man Of The House

Inside the aluminum trailer patched with plywood, a 10-year-old boy lies sobbing. They call him Boss, and this is where he lives, off Buck Ditch Road, at the bottom of a dirt path.

Boss has never been one to cry, at least not in front of Orey, his 8-year-old brother. Folks around tiny Bruceton, Tenn., say he's 10 going on 25. The kid plays tackle football against men and does all the cooking for his motherless family. During the summer he's out of the house by 6 a.m., gone to chop cotton on the other side of the county in sticky 95° heat. For that, he gets blisters the size of bottle caps on his hands and $110 a week. Orey, baby brother Detris and little sister Ernicka don't call him Boss without good reason.

Tonight, though, it is clear he is still very much a child. He is sprawled on the floor of Orey's room, tears streaming down his face. Orey is about to cry too. He doesn't have to ask what has happened. He's seen enough in his young life to know the answer.

The boys don't make eye contact until Boss catches his breath long enough to say it. "Daddy," he manages. "He … he … he wiped me out again. I've got nothing left."

The dutiful son has lost count of how many times the old man has bummed a 20-spot. He always says he'll pay it back on Friday, but he never does. The boys don't exactly know what Daddy blows it on, only that he usually disappears for days at a time, with people they don't know. This time Daddy said he needed whatever Boss could spare for the light bill. The boy knows he'll never see his $300 again.

Before the brothers cry themselves to sleep, Boss makes a pledge. "Someday," he says, "we're going to get to keep our own money."

But this is not a child-abuse story, and Boss is no scarred young man. Eleven years down the road, his friends say he is as upbeat as anyone they know. He grins from earhole to earhole and pulls silly pranks. He'll even say his daddy was "a great father," despite the fact that all four kids were taken away from him long ago. There are wounds, but they don't reach as deep as the smile.

Boss has come a long way from that aluminum trailer, a span measured by much more than the 3 hours 27 minutes MapQuest says it takes to get from there to genteel Oxford, Miss. These days, he is the biggest hit in that town since Archie's boy Eli. On and around the campus of Ole Miss, Boss is better known as P-Willie. To the rest of the country, he is Patrick Willis, 241 pounds of NFL-ready middle linebacker and the most fearsome defensive player in the SEC.

Scouts gush about Willis' fearlessness, and love his 4.46 speed even more. Two words you hear over and over: explosive and nasty. The experts will tell you that, like any Mike worth his spit, Willis plays angry. And it's a plausible explanation once you are acquainted with the wreckage of his childhood, a string of tragic twists that leads right up to the bad news of two months ago.

Willis, though, doesn't buy the street-corner psychoanalysis. He hits hard, not angry. When he hears people say that if anyone has reason to be mad at the world, it's him, he grins. "That's not me," he says, almost apologetically. He'll tell you that, instead, he's done the best he could, said his prayers and never stopped to ask why.

And how do you explain what God puts into your heart?

BOSS WAS 4 when his mother split, taking Ernicka and Detris but leaving him and Orey behind. Neither boy could figure out why Loretta Anderson abandoned them. "She took the two light ones," their paternal grandma said, and Boss just shook his head. By the time Boss was in first grade, he was already doing most of the cooking. He got pretty good at spaghetti and mac-and-cheese, which he served to Orey under a bare bulb that hung from a ceiling lined with plastic garbage bags. Of course, everything tastes better when you add spoonful after spoonful of sugar. When he was 10, he took a job in the fields, chopping cotton next to his grandmother. He had to. There were two more mouths to feed. Detris and Ernicka had moved back without their mother.

Life with Daddy got ugly. Boss says his father, Ernest, never went after him or Orey, but it was different for the other two. Ernicka says there were nights when she woke to her dad beating her. "He'd accuse them of something just so he could take his frustration out on them," Boss says.

The hard times brought the siblings closer, especially Boss and Orey. "All we had was each other," Orey says. "It was like two little kids holding each other's hands, trying to cross the road in traffic."

Money was constantly on their father's mind. He worked as a logger but never seemed to have enough. "In order for us to go to see friends or stay at someone's house, we had to bribe him," Boss says. The kids worried about what he was doing with those bribes. But whenever they questioned him, he'd tell them to shut up.

Church and sports were the boys' security blankets through high school. Some days they'd play basketball on the dirt in front of the trailer, shooting at an 11-foot basket for hours. They'd be out until it was so dark they couldn't tell if the ball was going through the hoop. Boss was a natural at basketball. Football and baseball, too.

Chris Finley, who'd just inherited a Bruceton Central basketball team with a 75-game losing streak, was floored by the kid's athleticism but equally impressed by his charm. "He was very quiet and kind of mumbled when he spoke," Finley says. "But he was always smiling about something." All Finley knew about Boss' home life was what he saw: the beat-up trailer where he dropped off the kid every day after practice. "You never heard him complain," he says.

But on a spring day in 2001, the 16-year-old finally cracked. After sister Ernicka had teamed with her father in a losing pickup basketball effort, she caught one of Ernest's angry elbows to the jaw. Crying and bleeding from her mouth, she said she didn't want to play anymore. That just made it worse. Ernest shook his 13-year-old daughter by the hair before picking up a plastic basketball goal and smacking her in the leg. Boss grabbed his dad's arm and yanked him away. "What are you doing?" he yelled. The old man was smaller than Boss, but he snarled back. "Boy, if you ever grab me again, I'll kill you."

Boss spit on the ground and walked off, but the next morning all four kids told a guidance counselor about the incident. Later that week, the Department of Children's Services warned Rod Sturdivant, the school's superintendent, that it was going to send them each to separate foster homes on the other side of the state unless Sturdivant found a foster family who would take all four and who was black—in the next 24 hours.

Time was running short when Finley stepped forward. He and his wife, Julie, both 24 and white, were well aware of the stakes. "We knew they were good kids," Finley says. "To see Boss moved as teams were about to offer scholarships … well, I just couldn't let that happen." DCS put its demands aside and approved them quickly.

Boss found out about his new home when Sturdivant, who was also the baseball coach, called him to the front of the team bus after a road game. Boss smiled wider than ever; he and his siblings were in good hands now. "Coach, now I can go to school wherever I want," he said. "I don't have to worry about my brothers and sister anymore."

The Finleys laid down three house rules: No drinking. No drugs. No sex. Boss loved that he could talk about school, girls, sports or whatever with Coach Finley. The guy was equal parts big brother and dad, while Julie was always ready to prepare two pots of everything at mealtime, the second one significantly sweeter to satisfy the appetites of the Willis clan.

But before long, the Finleys found that going from no children to four teenagers was too drastic a change. Ernicka and Detris were placed with a foster family a few towns over. It could have derailed Boss, but it didn't. He still saw them at school and called them every night. "I don't know where he gets it," Finley says, "but he has an unbelievable will to overcome anything."

Boss rushed for more than 2,000 yards as a senior and was named the state's Mr. Football. Still, he was shocked when recruiters came knocking on the Finleys' door. "I'd been thinking about going into the National Guard because I thought that was the only way I'd get school paid for," he says. In the end, Boss felt most at home at Ole Miss. "I was always scared of traffic," he says, "so Oxford felt just right."

When the Finleys dropped Boss off on campus, he introduced them as his parents. Before leaving, Chris Finley gave his surrogate son one last bit of advice: Don't make a habit of going back and forth between Bruceton and Oxford. Boss understood.

Patrick Willis made the honor roll as a freshman, but football didn't go so well. He was slowed by a wrist injury, and the 4-2-5 defense didn't suit his attacking style. The next season, he made some plays but still couldn't crack the starting lineup.

Then, in December 2004, coach David Cutcliffe was replaced by Ed Orgeron, a fiery Cajun who'd coached D-lines at Miami, Syracuse and USC. As Orgeron watched Willis on tape, he realized he had the guy he needed to lead his 4-3 defense. "He was awesome," Orgeron says. "He would've started on our national championship team at SC."

Fittingly, every day that spring, Willis studied film of the Trojans' defense and wondered if he'd be able to dismantle offenses the way middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu had. "The big difference is Lofa understood the defense," Orgeron explained to his new star. "Once you get it down, you'll blow him out of the water." By the end of the season, despite a broken right middle finger, a sprained left knee, a sprained right foot and a partially separated shoulder, Willis led the nation with nine solo tackles a game. Against LSU, he blasted running back Justin Vincent so hard he damn near knocked the drawl out of him. Willis was an All-America and a lock to jump to the pros, the lone bright spot on a 3—8 team in transition. "Anyone who thinks there is a better linebacker in college needs to get film of the guy," huffs a rival coach. "Then they need to apologize for their mistake."

Back in Bruceton over Christmas break, Boss had a chance to think about his future. He didn't believe his body would be 100% for the February combine or that he'd learned all there was to learn at Ole Miss. Besides, he thought, life was good in Oxford. He was on target to graduate a semester early with a criminal-justice degree. He didn't drink but was a favorite at the hotspots on The Square. A return to the working world could wait.

While he was home, he stopped by the trailer to visit his dad. After everything, Boss says he is grateful to Ernest for at least trying to be both father and mother to the kids and for "teaching me to cook and showing me right from wrong." The too-tall basketball hoop had fallen down, but little else had changed—at least not for the better. Boss saw his dad still could use a hand. As he was leaving, he told his old man he loved him, but added: "I'm not going to help you unless you help yourself first."

Ernest just turned, climbed into his blue Ford pickup and drove away.

IT'S 1 p.m. on a Monday in Oxford, 13 days before the Rebels open their season, and Willis, sporting his grin, has dropped by the defensive staff room to say hey. Expectations are high. The Rebels look to have an offense. P-Willie is healthy. This is as good as it's ever been for him.

One would never know that a month earlier he had taken one more gut shot: Detris had drowned in a swimming hole back home. Less than a week later, Boss delivered the eulogy: No one is promised anything in this world. That's why it's so important to do whatever you can with the time you have. "I didn't get the chance to tell him, 'Thank you for helping me do what I do,'" Willis says now.

Detris had a bit of a wild streak. His mouth had gotten him into his share of trouble after he moved out of the Finley house, but he'd righted himself. His grades were up, and he'd blossomed into a pretty good fullback prospect. Earlier in the summer, Boss had been giddy as he watched his kid brother slam into linebackers at the Rebels summer camp.

"I watched over him for so many years," Boss says. "Now I feel like he's watching over me."

Right before the funeral, there was more drama: a surprise visit from his mother. That sure seemed a little suspicious to Boss. Was she really trying to get back into his life now, right as his future looked brightest? Boss and his siblings got a chance to show her that her surviving kids are just fine, thank you. Orey is attending Tennessee Tech, and Ernicka, a forward at Jackson (Tenn.) State, never did give up basketball. But if their mother came for more than that, she left disappointed. Says Boss: "Just because I forgive you doesn't mean I'm supposed to let you back in my life." It's a life on an enviable trajectory. Even though Willis' Rebels are off to a shaky start, he's played well and is eight months away from NFL riches, the money he promised Orey so long ago they'd one day be able to keep. "It may sound crazy," Boss says, "but if I had to go through it all again, I would. It made me into the man I am today." The man he's always been.