The town of Bruceton celebrated the return of a hometown hero and the dedication of a new fitness zone last week as former San Francisco 49ers linebacker and Bruceton native Patrick Willis launched his new charity.
Excited residents, curious onlookers and childhood friends of Willis’ gathered at the Bruceton Memorial Park as Bruceton Mayor Robert Keeton III snapped the ceremonial scissors with Willis, opening the wide array of athletic equipment to the public.
The event marked the debut of Willis’ “The Whinker’s Mind Youth Fund,” a philanthropic organization working to bring accessible physical fitness to all youth.
“Patrick is being inducted into the 49ers Hall of Fame in two weeks, and in honor of his induction, he wanted to thank those who had been a part of his growing up,” said Joanne Pasternack, president and CEO of Oliver Rose, a philanthropic consultancy group that has been working with Willis on the project. “So he’s launching his Patrick Willis Youth Fund—the Whinker’s Mind Youth Fund, and to launch it he wanted to give back to Bruceton.”
Willis funded the wide array of all-weather, low impact and widely accessible fitness equipment, as well as donated equipment to his former high school.
“It’s all weather and all access, so no matter what your abilities or your challenges are, you can use this. That was really important to Patrick—he has a sister with special needs, and he wanted to make sure that everyone could really come in and use this,” Pasternack said. “It’s also good for the elderly—it’s not far from the senior center, and that was done deliberately because we wanted this to be a fitness zone that was for kids and elderly alike.”
Willis demonstrated a few of the exercises as Pasternack spoke, even going as far as to use the equipment with Harlon Butler, the 9-year-old son on Carroll County Mayor Joseph Butler.
“It uses your own body weight to operate, so it’s not causing any strain on muscles,” she said. “So even if you’re new to working out, you can use it. It has a tremendous life span—it won’t need any maintenance for years and years and years.”
“It’s free weights, so there’s not weights—it’s just to get (residents) out here moving,” he said. “You don’t have to be an athlete to get out here and use the machines. It can be used by anyone, old and young.”
For Willis, the opportunity to give back has always been the goal.
“I feel like it’s the right thing to to—to invest in my community,” he said. “But most importantly, it was one of those things I always wanted to do. And my circumstances presented what they did, and I was very fortunate to be able to have some great friends in the community to help me get where I am.
“To be able to give back to the community and where I come from—it means a lot. You know, don’t forget where you come from. I told myself ‘one day, if I ever make it, I want to be able to do this’. And I was fortunate to get where I was able to get too, and now we have this.”
Keeton expressed pride in how far Willis has come—and that he came back.
“Patrick means a whole lot to this town,” he said. “Everybody has supported him since he was in high school, tremendous athlete that he was. He converted a lot of people to Ole Miss fans when he played for them, and 49ers when he went there. He’s well liked, and well respected, and it’s just a wonderful thing that he’s done for us.”
Although Willis still lives in California, he hopes that the kickoff of his new charity will help give back to Bruceton, even when he’s not here.
“There’s no place like home,” he smiled. “Home is where the heart is and Bruceton has my heart. Being able to come back and give back—and not just give back anything, but give back something that everyone can use from young to old, it means a lot.
“It’s about legacy. We all start from somewhere, and we go through the process and the journey and we learn. We learn a lot. And I’m a firm believer that with all you learn, if you don’t give back and share and do things that can inspire other to go out and reach their fullest potential, why did you learn it? One day I’ll end, but what I leave behind will hopefully continue to inspire. So I hope this will be one of those things.”
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