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Butkus, Done Bay Area-Style

It was easy to smile in early September, when optimism reigned. The hottest young team in football and its starting rookie inside linebacker were fulfilling all their preseason promise.

Back then, the 49ers were 2–0 and fresh off a win over the Rams in which Willis, a first-round draft pick from Ole Miss, had chased down Steven Jackson from 35 yards away and planted the 231-pound running back on his butt. Then San Francisco lost eight straight. But as his team got worse, Willis got better. He won Defensive Rookie of the Month in October. And a day after breaking his right hand against the Falcons on Nov. 4, he volunteered for kickoff coverage.

By the time the Niners faced the Cardinals on Nov. 25, he was unstoppable, collecting 18 tackles (raising his season total to a league-leading 110), including a game saver in which he sprinted 61 yards to catch receiver Sean Morey. Willis simply says that he’s using “what the good Lord has given me,” while Niners assistant coach Mike Singletary says the 22-year-old “has no limits.” We say this: When a season falls apart, good players keep doing their jobs—but great ones decide to do more.