SANTA CLARA -- You had to see him floating through the locker room last weekend, standing for interviews, sitting for more interviews, walking and stopping for even more interviews, grinning all the while.
Finally, after soaking in the moment for the better part of an hour, Patrick Willis took a deep breath and began peeling off his armor. His team, the 49ers, had won the NFC Championship game. He had excelled. He had led.
There was no concealing how much it meant to Willis.
The magnificent inside linebacker realized at that moment, and it was clear throughout this week, that he had taken the final, difficult step toward his first Super Bowl and a giant leap toward his professional destiny.
Willis turned 28 on Friday and he clearly is ready at last to claim for himself the throne set aside for the NFL's signature defensive player while also carrying the torch gripped by the league's greatest inside linebacker.