In the lobby of Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central High School are pictures of its graduating classes from 1929 to 2012, hanging from flip boards. Look closely and you'll see the surname Willis recurring often through the roll call of years.
Patrick Willis leads the 49ers' third-ranked defense into the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. (Photo: Cary Edmondson, USA TODAY Sports)
Look, there's Patrick Willis, perhaps the most famous graduate in Central High history, who'll play inside linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers in next week's Super Bowl, from the Class of 2003.
There's Ernest Willis, his father, Class of 1981. There's Orey, his brother, Class of 2005. And there's Ernicka, his sister, Class of 2006. But, sadly, not Detris, his brother who drowned the summer before his senior year, missing from the Class of 2007.
Ernest is not Patrick's only father. To find the other man Patrick calls Dad, and the woman he calls Mom, you have to look even closer -- among the Class of 1994 you'll find Chris Finley and Julia Cole, high school sweethearts, unaware of the unexpected bend coming not too far down the road.
Chris and Julie Finley took in Patrick Willis and his siblings when the state was poised to take the children from their father.(Photo: Josh F. Anderson for USA TODAY Sports)
Chris and Julie Finley, both 36, will be in New Orleans next week for the Super Bowl as guests of the gentle foster child who grew up to be one of the NFL's most fearsome competitors. How they came to be his foster parents is a tale familiar to just about everyone in this tiny town of not much more than 1,500.
Chris and Julie were 25 and had been married for about a year. He was teaching at the high school and she at the elementary school on the same campus. One day, in the spring of 2002, Rod Sturdivant, the football coach at the time, told Chris that the state was poised to take Ernest's children from him. Their mother walked out years earlier and Patrick, at 17, was in some ways his younger siblings' primary caregiver.
"Rod said they didn't know anyone in town who could take all four of them and he asked, 'Do you know anybody?' " Chris recalls. "In a roundabout way, he was asking us if we could take them."
Sturdivant says he wasn't really asking that. The state's Department of Children's Services would have preferred a black family, Sturdivant says, but the Finleys are white.
But Chris went straight to Julie's classroom to talk about opening their four-bedroom, two-bath single-wide trailer to the Willis kids. They consulted their families and their church, but there wasn't much time for talk as the children could be sent to another county far from home within 24 hours.
"I said, 'Sure, that's something we could do. Why not?' " Julie recalls. "Looking back, we were 25 and we thought we could do anything. Everybody else said, 'Do you have any idea what you're getting into?' "
They didn't. The state gave them the four Willis kids, and they kept them through the summer. It was more difficult than they imagined.
"We were 25 and all of a sudden had four teenagers," Chris says. "Well, they weren't all teenagers yet, but mostly. My wife and I looked at each other and we knew we didn't have the time to give to four teenagers."
The Department of Children's Services decided the Finleys would keep the older pair and the younger pair would go to another foster home. "That," Chris says, "was a hard day."
It was never supposed to be permanent. The Finleys would keep the four kids for the summer, maybe six months at the most, and Ernest would get counseling and the opportunity to have his children back.
"Ernest, for whatever reason, he never did the counseling," Chris says.
"It was a little while," Julie says, "that turned into forever."
Source: USA Today | Erik Brady