Patrick Willis defied the odds to reach the NFL, and his message on Saturday to Ole Miss graduates was that they too could reach their dreams as long as they have purpose, vision and passion.

Willis, who was the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, had an eight-year career as a linebacker in San Francisco where he was named to seven Pro Bowl berths and five first-team All Pro teams. He retired at 30 in 2015.

On Saturday, he returned to a crowd of nearly 3,000 gathered in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium during a breezy and overcast morning for the university’s Convocation address, according to Ole Miss.

Willis told the 2020 graduates to go forward with purpose, vision and passion and reminded them that this commencement is also a celebration of their success in the face of 2020.

“Purpose powers the mind, vision drives the body and passion fuels the soul,” said Willis, who holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Ole Miss. “On your way to greatness, there will be happy days and sad days, but remember all the things that you will go through will shape you and mold you for the aim you have in mind.”

Willis told the graduates about how he grew up watching Dallas Cowboys games as a child and imagining himself on the field.

“I remember seeing myself, lights sparkling, running down the field, and I said, ‘I’m going to do that; I’m going to get that done,” he said. “Class of 2020, you are already on your way to fulfilling something you began to see a long time ago. So envision what is that for you, and get it done.”