Nine-and-a-half months after he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, Brayden Willis’ slow but steady transition into life in the NFL and his debut season ends at the Super Bowl.
Most NFL players don’t make it to a Super Bowl. As of 2021, only about 17% of the players in Pro Football Reference’s all-time database had reached the title game. Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson and LaDainian Tomlinson stand among the greatest to never make a Super Bowl appearance.
But on Sunday, former Oklahoma tight end Brayden Willis will cap his rookie campaign with the San Francisco 49ers having experienced something those all-timers never got to.
“I just can’t even believe it,” Rhonda Reddic, Willis’ mom, said this week. “It feels really surreal.”
On this front — reaching the Super Bowl in Year 1 — alone, Willis’ debut season in the NFL will close as a qualified success Sunday night inside Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end is one of the six former Sooners spread across this year’s pair of Super Bowl rosters
Reddic will be there to see her son suit up against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 58; so will Reddic’s husband Russell, Willis’ sister Grace and Willis’ girlfriend Tatyanah. Larger parties of friends and family will gather all over Dallas-Fort Worth Sunday afternoon.
It’s been nine-and-a-half months since the 49ers selected Willis in the seventh round of last spring’s NFL Draft after he set career-highs in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns during his final season with the Sooners in the fall of 2022.
Willis inked a four-year, $3.92 million contract last May. In August, he made San Francisco’s 53-man roster. In the five months since, Willis has settled into the newness of life in the NFL.
“It’s been a reset at a new level (of football),” said Reddic, who made it to all but one 49ers regular-season home games. “He’s learning all of these things again. And for us, too, as parents and as the support system, we’re learning how they do things.”
Kittle, a two-time first-team All-Pro who went to Norman High School, was one of the first people to text Willis after he landed with the 49ers.
Willis has found support inside a San Francisco tight end room that includes former Georgia tight end Charlie Woerner and 2023 third-round Cameron Latu (Alabama). In that position group, within one of the most highly-regarded organizations in the NFL, Willis’ found a comfortable immersion.
“He feels incredibly blessed and humbled to be behind someone like George Kittle,” Reddic said. “He’s mentioned that with his position group they’re all just helpful.”
The resources in San Francisco have been abundant. Willis’ playing time has been more limited.
He recorded six offensive snaps over the first 14 weeks of the regular season. Willis saw more of the field from Weeks 14-18, totalling 46 offensive snaps over that stretch, including 25 in the 49ers’ Week 18 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. If he gets on the field Sunday against the Chiefs, it’ll most likely come on special teams where Willis has logged 141 plays across kick return, punt protection and field goal coverage in 2023.
This weekend, Willis will wrap up what has been a slow but steady transition into the NFL this season. The expectation is that he’ll be back with the 49ers next season, but one of the lessons the Willis’ have learned over the last year is that the league is, indeed, a business.
Nothing about the future is certain.
It’s why around 3:30 p.m. local time Sunday in Las Vegas, when Willis steps into the Super Bowl for the final game of his rookie season, Reddic and the rest of his cheering section in Las Vegas will simply just relish the moment.
“It’s just been a whirlwind,” Reddic said. “I don’t know what we expected but this isn’t it. We know this isn’t the norm, but it’s been so fun and it’s been special watching him getting his footing.”