The San Francisco 49ers’ defense, weakened with the loss of Aldon Smith, may also be without the services of Patrick Willis as the team faces the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on Thursday night. Thanks to a groin injury he suffered against the Indianapolis Colts, Willis is officially listed as questionable on the 49ers’ injury report. If Willis cannot play, backup linebacker Michael Wilhoite should get the start. This game provides a good opportunity for a young player who has worked hard to achieve his dream of playing football in the NFL.
Wilhoite’s push for football success started early. Though he entered college at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas as a 190-pound freshman, Wilhoite established a tough early morning workout routine to improve his standing on the football team, eventually bulking up to 240 pounds. Thanks to his efforts, and versatile athletic ability, Wilhoite became a starting linebacker his sophomore year, also getting playing time at safety. Wilhoite was voted team captain three times throughout his college career.
After college, he was not drafted by any team in the NFL so Wilhoite played a season in the UFL with the Omaha Nighthawks. When that season ended, he took on jobs selling sneakers, working as a personal trainer at a gym, and interning at a radio station to support himself. Throughout this period, he continued his workouts as if he were still playing football.
Thanks to that determination and persistence, Wilhoite made it to the NFL in December 2011 when the 49ers signed him to their practice squad as an undrafted free agent. In 2012, the 49ers promoted Wilhoite to the active roster, where he mainly contributed on special teams: In eight games played last season, including the playoffs, Wilhoite made a team-high 11 tackles on special teams.
In the 49ers’ 2013 preseason games, Wilhoite performed very well, amassing 20 tackles, three defended passes, and one interception in four starts. In the preseason opener against the Denver Broncos, Wilhoite made 10 tackles. In the preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Wilhoite, named special teams’ captain, recorded 3 solo tackles. If given the start against the Rams, Wilhoite will face the intimidating task of filling Willis’ very big shoes.
Sara DeBord is an NFL writer for www.footballandfutbol.com and www.baysportsreport.com.