Bee file, 2013. While most of the 49ers' established veterans either worked out at home, rehabilitated from injuries or played hooky now and then, Patrick Willis was a springtime constant.

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On the 49ers: Willis has begun his Super Bowl push

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 4:50 pm
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 28, 2013 - 12:37 pm

SANTA CLARA - I made it through Jim Harbaugh's offseason program and didn't miss a single day!

OK, that's not what was written on the T-shirts that Harbaugh passed out last week, but that was the message. Like a beaming third-grade teacher on the final day of school, Harbaugh handed out certificates and T-shirts on the final day of minicamp to the 31 players who had perfect attendance this spring.

"It's a neat thing," Harbaugh said. "You think back to when you were in school, and on the last day of school you get a perfect attendance certificate. And that's what this is. It says something nice about you. You go put it up at home, put it in a little frame. Put it on the wall."

Those earning certificates and T-shirts mostly were the eager beavers of the locker room. They were the young players, the newcomers, the undrafted and the roster hopefuls desperately trying to make an impression on their coaches - Here's an apple for you, sir - as they fight to make the roster.

One, however, was a six-time Pro Bowler.

While most of the 49ers' established veterans either worked out at home, rehabilitated from injuries or played hooky now and then, Patrick Willis was a springtime constant. At a time of year when practice observers continually have to check their rosters, Willis' familiar No. 52 was ever present, often mixed in with second- and third-stringers.

For that, Willis received a goody bag from Harbaugh, who stressed it was no easy achievement.

"It's a high criteria," Harbaugh said. "It's a very cruel, very relentless criteria. It's perfection. It's every practice, every meeting, every weight workout with no excuse. You could have a great excuse. But if you weren't there - perfect - then you don't get a certificate and a T-shirt."

Willis explained that he was actually exercising his brain in April, May and June. He said the smarter he gets, the faster he becomes. And he hopes the strides he makes above the shoulder pads will offset any inevitable diminution below them.

But his presence also was a strong signal about leadership.

Super Bowl losers rarely avenge their loss. In fact, no Super Bowl runner-up has won the championship the following season since the Miami Dolphins won it in 1973.

The 49ers have a difficult schedule, and every opponent is gunning for them. It's also hard to get beyond the mental, emotional and physical toll of a Super Bowl season that fell just short.

And that physical price was apparent in Santa Clara this spring. The 49ers played three extra games last season, which was extended by an additional month. At least eight players have had surgery since November - five of them starters - and the team's training room remains full more than four months after their most recent game.

A run to the Super Bowl is like moving a massive boulder up a steep hill.

Everything - pulls, tears, strains, aches - gets placed aside in that frenzied final push to win a championship. When it's over, it's hard to begin the push again. There's a significant sense of inertia for a Super Bowl participant, especially in May and June.

Willis has made 812 tackles since 2007, and his body has paid the price for every hit. No one would have criticized him for taking time off or coming down with a mysterious tight back or vague hamstring tweak that kept him off the field this spring. It's part of the NFL veteran's playbook.

Willis isn't as vocal and charismatic as the linebacker he's most been compared to, Baltimore's Ray Lewis.

His presence at spring drills was a subtle statement. But it's a significant one. It shows Willis has taken ownership in the 49ers like Lewis did for so many seasons with the Ravens.

Willis realizes if the 49ers want to play in February again, someone has to begin nudging that boulder in May and June, and that he is the man to start that process.

After Harbaugh handed him a T-shirt last week, Willis walked to the middle of the 90-man huddle and gave a speech.

It's as good an indication as any that the 49ers have the right personalities to break the Super Bowl loser's curse, and that Willis' season could begin with a T-shirt and end with a ring.

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs and archives at and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320. Follow him on Twitter @mattbarrows.

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