NEW ORLEANS -- Given the attention that will be paid to Ray Lewis and the last game in his Hall of Fame career, Super Bowl XLVII might as well be renamed Super Bowl 52. Lewis' image is plastered around the city on signage and promotional displays, and Monday, he and his Ravens teammates will arrive.
Sunday night, though, the other 52 showed up. And he made it clear that although he has Super Bowl-size respect for Lewis, the 49ers' Patrick Willis is not willing to make this a going-away gift.
"As far as Ray Lewis goes, I'll forever and always have respect for what he's done for this game, how he's played it, the passion he's played it at,'' Willis said Sunday night. "But at the same time, too, I feel like the time is now. I want it bad, we want it bad, and that's just what it is.''
Willis may be the heir to Lewis as the league's dominant middle linebacker. He even chose his jersey number in part to pay homage to Lewis. Offered a few numbers after being drafted in 2007, Willis said he chose 52 because he likes even numbers and "I'm a fan of a guy who wears 52 and that'd be a number to play up to, a number to wear on your back because a great one is wearing it right now.''
The two have become close. Willis said he fostered his relationship with Lewis at their many Pro Bowl appearances, sitting poolside in Hawaii, soaking up Lewis' wisdom and letting his knowledge lap up against him like the South Pacific waves.
Willis has even taken to calling Lewis "Mufasa,'' after the stately character in "The Lion King." Even that moniker is hedged this week, however.
"By no stretch am I calling him a king in this game,'' Willis said. "But . . . right now, he holds that crown for the way to play the middle linebacker position, the way it's been played for a long time.''
It's a crown that could be up for grabs Sunday. Willis may not be as flamboyant as Lewis, and he may be the overlooked 52 in this game, but he believes he has just as much desire to ascend to the throne.
"He plays the game with a lot of passion and enthusiasm,'' Willis said. "I play with that same kind of passion, that same kind of enthusiasm.
"I don't get up and go as crazy as he does at times, but inside when a play is made or something is going good, I burn inside with that same kind of feeling. I just don't show it as much.''
Willis isn't the only 49er who views Lewis as a bit of a football diety. Tackle Joe Staley recalled playing the Ravens in his rookie season in 2007.
"I remember blocking him one play and I had a block where I was like, 'Holy crap, it's Ray Lewis! I just blocked Ray Lewis!' " Staley said. "He's a player that is obviously on top of his game and one of the best to ever play this position. He brings a ton to that franchise and that team. He is the heart of that team. It's going to be great to compete against him for the trophy."