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Linebackers Vying For Top of Depth Chart

Patrick Willis and Paul Posluszny grew up in different worlds.

One considered attending the Naval Academy and representing his country on the battlefield--if he couldn't become the next Western Pennsylvania kid to star at Linebacker U. The other dreamed of creating a better life for his siblings in the South.

Now their divergent paths have crossed here, at the NFL's annual scouting combine, where the award-winning linebackers are vying to become first-round picks in April's NFL draft.

"It would be a blessing, especially the way I grew up," Willis said, when asked what he would do with his riches. "It would help me take care of those who helped me along the way and make sure that if I have children they won't have to go through what I went through."

Willis endured the kind of childhood experiences no youngster should.

The real-life nightmare began when his mother left home, abandoning her four children and forcing them to fend for themselves with an uninterested father. Willis was 4 years old.

Two years later, Willis was cooking meals for his siblings, and by age 10, Willis was working in Tennessee's cotton fields with his grandmother, earning $110 per week. The money went to his dad so he could pay the family's bills.

As a teenager, the situation worsened. When Willis learned his father was abusing his sister, Ernicka, he turned him in to child services and suddenly, Willis and his siblings needed to find a new family, one that would give them the love and respect they deserved.

When Chris and Julie Finley took in Willis, becoming his legal guardians, things changed. Eventually, Willis earned a scholarship to Mississippi and began emerging as one of the Rebels top players.

As a junior, he led the nation with 90 solo tackles despite playing with a broken finger, a sprained knee, a sprained foot and a separated right shoulder--pains that paled in comparison to his life off the field.

But just when it seemed everything was finally going right, Willis was struck by another tragic chapter. Last summer, his 17-year-old brother, Detris, a two-way starter on his high school football team in Bruceton, Tenn., drowned while swimming with friends. Willis delivered the eulogy.

He played his senior season like he a man on a mission. Willis finished with 137 tackles, 11 1/2 for losses and three sacks. He was an All-American, the SEC's defensive player of the year and the Butkus Award winner as the nation's top linebacker.

He also earned the coveted Chucky Mullins Courage Award, named for the former Mississippi player who was paralyzed during a game in 1989. Mullins died in 1991.

Last month, he added the Senior Bowl's defensive MVP award to his list of honors.

Yet even now, the wounds still cut deeply. Asked to explain what happened to his parents, the soft-spoken, polite linebacker simply said: "There were complications with my dad, and my mother was never really around."

In 22 years, he's overcome more obstacles, challenges and disappointments than most people experience in a lifetime and Willis believes the tribulations have helped him grow as a player, too.

"My real-life experience taught me how to compete through adversity," he said. "No matter what happens, if someone knocks you down, you have to find a way to get up and get the job done. That's what you have to do."

Posluszny's road to the combine took a more conventional route.

After sweeping both the 2005 Butkus and Bednarik awards, most figured he was off to the NFL. The expectations increased when Hall of Famer Jack Ham called Posluszny the best linebacker to ever play at Penn State, a comment that even surprised the humblest of players.

"I couldn't believe he said it because I know all the great linebackers that went before me, and I can't stack up to them," Posluszny said. "(Shane) Conlan, (LaVar) Arrington, whoever. If I picked the best, I'd have to say it was Jack Ham because he's in the Hall of Fame."

Yes, Posluszny admits he contemplated leaving school early--until one play late in last year's Orange Bowl took away that option. When Posluszny tried to leap over a block by Lorenzo Booker, the Florida State running back hit Posluszny in the knee with his helmet.

The toughest Nittany Lion on the roster couldn't just shake off this one; two ligaments were partially torn. Posluszny feared he might need surgery, but doctors said he simply needed rest.

To Posluszny, it was an agonizing two months.

"It was long, long and boring," he said. "The injury wasn't very significant, but it was a long rehab process."

The other part was that Posluszny had to start all over, proving to scouts he could make it all the way back to his old form.

While he matched his 2005 totals with 116 tackles and three sacks, Willis wound up winning the Butkus Award and may have unseated Posluszny as the No. 1 linebacker in this year's draft.

The way teams look at it, though, they can't go wrong. Both are talented, tested and terrific on the field. And in a world where team officials often talk about needing "character guys," they will be hard-pressed to find two more compelling cases than those offered by Posluszny's comeback and Willis' fight for survival.

"Stepping up to this level, I'm going to have to do something regardless of what background I came from or what division I played at," Willis said. "It doesn't matter where you're from, as long as you show up when it's time."

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