By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
SAN FRANCISCO -- Bam-Bam? Boss? The Second Samurai? Maybe the Humble Hammer?
Patrick Willis plays football at a highlight-reel velocity that fairly cries out for hyperbole, yet the San Francisco 49ers linebacker still hasn't been given a nickname that sticks.
"The media can call me whatever they want," Willis said, "as long as they call my number on the plays I make."
At least Willis has been given some recognition after 16 games of the most inspired play by a Niners newcomer since Ronnie Lott began patrolling the secondary. Willis won The Associated Press 2007 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award Friday, earning 48 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 media members who regularly cover the NFL.
Willis provided the only real bright spots in San Francisco's gloomy 5-11 season, leading the NFL with 174 tackles while showing off a jaw-dropping combination of athleticism and football smarts.
But what to call the player who already seems ready to join Baltimore's Ray Lewis and Chicago's Brian Urlacher among the NFL's top inside linebackers?
"My Granny, when I was a little boy, named me Boss, and my uncle too," Willis said. "Then all of a sudden I got to college, and I heard everything from Blade, with Wesley Snipes, to Tyrese, to P. Willy. ... Whatever they want to call me, they call me."
Others have taken a shot. Minnesota coach Brad Childress says Willis is "a rolling ball of butcher knives," while Cincinnati receiver Chad Johnson was inspired to launch a gleefully profane, minute-long celebration of Willis' skills simply by watching 49ers film before the Bengals visited Candlestick Park.
"All during film, I'm calling him Bam-Bam, like from 'The Flintstones,' because he hits everything," Johnson said. "He is the truth."
Some say Willis should be the Second Samurai after spending his rookie season under the tutelage of Mike Singletary, the Hall of Fame linebacker. Others have suggested the Humble Hammer, because of Willis' mature attitude toward work and life despite a difficult upbringing.
Willis' Tennessee high school basketball coach and his wife became Willis' guardians when he was 16, following years of neglect by his biological father. Willis' 17-year-old brother, Detris, then drowned in July 2006 while swimming with friends, shortly before Willis finished up his career at Mississippi.
"I'm the type of person that (doesn't) feed off accolades," Willis said. "I just have a passion inside that says I want to be the best, whether I get recognized for it or not. I just want to be productive for my team, and productive as an individual. This isn't my story."
Carolina linebacker Jon Beason received the other two votes for the award, yet anyone who paid attention to the 49ers' week-to-week struggles knew Willis was something special.
The 11th overall draft pick was a dynamic presence from his first practice with the 49ers, earning a starting job in training camp and taking a leadership role on defense by midseason.
In the final weeks of the Niners' fifth straight losing season, opponents like Johnson and Childress were scheming to avoid him. He made 20 tackles against Tampa Bay in mid-December to go with two sacks and a forced fumble in a typically dominant performance.
Yet the signature moment of his rookie season came in an overtime victory at Arizona on Thanksgiving weekend.
Speedy Cardinals receiver Sean Morey slipped two tackles and seemed headed for a length-of-the-field touchdown run, but Willis incredibly ran down Morey from behind for what turned out to be a game-saving tackle when Arizona missed the ensuing field goal. Willis' closing speed had to be seen to believed -- yet it was nothing special to him.
"I never say it was after this (specific) game I knew I would have a good year," Willis said. "Each week I continued to work and try to be productive. Each week was a working opportunity for me. I think that I was more comfortable as the season went on. I think I started understanding things a little better and seeing things better."
Though San Francisco's Dana Stubblefield won the award in 1993, Willis is the 49ers' first defensive rookie to make the Pro Bowl since Lott made the team in 1981. Willis has a solid shot to be voted an All-Pro linebacker as well.
Willis is the fifth straight linebacker to earn the honor. The previous four were Houston's DeMeco Ryans, Shawne Merriman of San Diego, Jonathan Vilma of the New York Jets and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs.