By Joe Catullo Jr.
Approximately 2,600 miles separate Youngstown and San Francisco. Patrick Willis was born in Bruceton, Tenn., which is about 650 miles away.
But when the 49ers linebacker arrived in Youngstown on Saturday, he felt right at home.
“Honestly, Youngstown reminds me a lot of where I grew up,” he said. “My town’s really small, and it’s pretty small around here, too.”
His teammate, tight end Vernon Davis who originally is from Washington, D.C., felt the same.
“I say that this is our home away from home,” Davis said.
Willis and Davis returned to Youngstown for the Edward J. DeBartolo scholarship dinner at Stambaugh Auditorium. Also in attendance were 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, coaches Tom Rathman and Jim Tomsula, and players Phil Dawson, Mario Manningham (who declined an interview request) and Donte Whitner alongside Willis and Davis.
“This is [Denise DeBartolo York’s] event that she took over from her father,” Dr. John York, 49ers co-chairman, said. “It goes to raise money for scholarships for kids who may not be right at the top of the class, but these are kids who’ve had a tough life.
“She seeks those kids out and makes sure that they have an opportunity because through education, you can almost do anything you want to do in life.”
Cheerleaders greeted guests at the front door, creating a San Francisco atmosphere. After they received their name tags, they walked through the doors and into a cozy environment.
In the middle were the tables and chairs, surrounded by dim, golden lights. To the left was a band, and to the right was the auction table. The items ranged anywhere from an autographed picture of New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz to a signed jersey from 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith.
“It’s a great cause, and I’m here to support it,” Davis said. “I have to support the organization because they’re family. There’s nothing like the DeBartolos.”
The Niners are familiar with Youngstown from their visits during the regular season. The team has practiced at Youngstown State’s Stambaugh Stadium in each of the last two seasons in-between games.
Last season the 49ers went from Minnesota to New York, and from Cincinnati to Philadelphia the year before. They won both games after practicing in Youngstown.
John York said the organization attempted a third trip back for this season but is unlikely because the 49ers will play one game at Wembley Stadium in London. They will face the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 27.
“We thought there still might be an opportunity, and we’re still looking at that, but I think it’s unlikely with the trip to London,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean we won’t come back after that.”
Davis said when the Niners might return to Stambaugh Stadium in 2014, he’ll be wearing a “big ring on my finger.”
“We’ve lived here all of our lives,” John York said. “We’ve got a lot of friends and family here. We understand that this is both Browns and Steelers country, but it’s also a little place in people’s hearts for the 49ers, and I’m very glad that they recognize that.”