SAN FRANCISCO (BVM) – When former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement on March 10, 2015, the football world was speechless. Willis had been a dominant force since first entering the league in 2007, going to seven Pro Bowls and being named a first–team All-Pro in five of his eight seasons. While the retirement was a shock to nearly all in football, it wasn’t for Willis, who had realized that his body could no longer hold up in the modern NFL. With that knowledge, Willis left the game with his head held high, but at 30 years old he had plenty of life ahead of him and he has made the most of it.
Early days and high school football
Born and raised in the small town of Bruceton, Tennessee, Willis grew up in a house full of abuse at the hands of his father, who was suffering from both alcohol and drug addiction. The oldest of four, it was up to Willis to take care of his two younger brothers and younger sister, even working in cotton fields at age 10 to support his family. Even at a young age knew he wanted to be a professional athlete whether that was in baseball, basketball or football as he was skilled at all three.
In high school, Willis began to separate himself from the pack on the gridiron. As a linebacker and running back for Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central High School, Willis became a two-time all-state selection, the region’s most valuable player and was named the West Tennessee Player of the Year. He even became the first person in state history to be nominated for both the Mr. Football Award for a Lineman (as a linebacker) and the Mr. Football Award for a Back (as a tailback) in the same season his senior year. Willis would be rated as a three-star recruit by both 247Sports and Rivals, earning offers to Arkansas State, Memphis, Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
Coming from Tennessee, Willis had originally wanted to play for the Vols, but after not earning a scholarship and being told by coaches that they were looking at other prospects, he committed to Ole Miss. The Volunteers’ loss was the Rebels’ gain as Willis would soon embark on a Hall of Fame–worthy career in Oxford.
As a freshman in 2003, Willis helped the Rebels to a share of the SEC West title, a victory in the 2004 Cotton Bowl and a No. 13 final ranking. The next season, Willis would earn All-SEC honorable mention. As an upperclassman, Willis would bring his game to another level as he led the conference in tackles as both a junior (128) and senior (137). During his junior campaign, his 9.0 solo tackles per game led the nation while his 12.8 total tackles per game ranked sixth in the country. During his senior campaign, he averaged 11.4 tackles per game, which also ranked sixth in the nation, while his 7.25 solo tackles per game were the third best. This earned him back-to-back first–team All-SEC honors.
As a senior, Willis earned numerous national honors as he was a consensus first–team All-American and won both the Butkus Award and the Jack Lambert Award as the best linebacker collegiate linebacker That season, Willis was also named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, the SEC Most Valuable Lineman and was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player.
The legend finished his time at Ole Miss ranked sixth all-time in program history with 355 career tackles and tied for fifth with 33 career tackles for loss. He was inducted into the Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame in 2015 and the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame in 2019.
After tearing it up at Ole Miss, Willis would enter the 2007 NFL Draft where he was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the No. 11 overall pick. This would be the start of an incredible run for the linebacker. Despite being a rookie, Willis would lead the league in both tackles and solo tackles in 2007. This earned Willis Pro Bowl, first-team All-Pro and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
He wouldn’t stop there as over the next six seasons Willis would be named to six Pro Bowls, earn first–team All-Pro four times and earn second–team All-Pro once. The lone season Willis did not make a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team was his final season of 2014 when he missed 10 games due to a toe injury. In total, Willis would play and start in 112 games, all with San Francisco, recording 950 tackles, 733 solo tackles, 60 tackles for loss, 41 quarterback hits, 20.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, eight interceptions, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions returned for touchdowns and a Super Bowl appearance in eight seasons.
Injuries became the biggest issue in Willis’ career, causing him to take his final NFL snap at the age of 29. As his feet became worse following his 2014 injury, Willis knew it was time to hang up the cleats.
“There’s something about these feet. And those are what made me who I am,” Willis said during his retirement press conference. “They had you all saying, ‘Wow, where’d he come from?’ I know I no longer have it in these feet to go out there and give you guys that kind of ‘Wow.’
“As much as I’d love to win a Super Bowl and to bring number six back here, I have to be honest. I have to tell y’all that if I don’t have what I know I need to give to my teammates and the organization the best chance to win, then I can’t be out there doing that.”
Retirement and what he’s doing now
While fans and those who watch them treat athletes like immortals and make it seem as if retirement means they will be lost to history forever, that is far from the truth. Even Willis acknowledged that he had much more left in life following his football career.
“Retired doesn’t mean you’re dying, it means you’re putting something to rest and going on to do other things,” Willis said. “I feel like that’s where I am. If I want to go fishing tomorrow, I’m going to go fishing. If I want to go and speak to kids, I can go speak to kids. If I want to go home and watch my little brother play baseball, I can go to do that… Life is amazing right now.”
The retired linebacker would certainly take the bull by the horns. After taking a few years to decompress and recover, Willis would enter the business world as an entrepreneur. Some of the efforts Willis is a part of include the startup “CoachTube”, an online platform for coaches that showcases videos to help them perfect their craft. Another company Willis involves himself in is “Nirvana Water Sciences” where he is an investor and ambassador.
There are many ways to coach and share information about sports these days and Coachtube is the outlet I choose! Well on sale for a limited time check out this simple but effective 🏈course(s)!!! Build The Beast 🔥 https://t.co/XVSsUtBspm
— Patrick Willis (@PatrickWillis52) February 13, 2022
Willis has also found time to give back to the community. His own company, “The Whinker’s Mind”, looks to help people reach self-actualization by supporting them as they build their minds, bodies, and souls through the organization’s programs. If that wasn’t enough, Willis also gave back to his hometown of Bruceton gifting fitness equipment to a local park and equipment to the high school. Willis also launched a charity which he calls “The Whinker’s Mind Youth Fund” where he will look to help the next generation reach their full potential.
Over the past three years, Willis has been up for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In both 2020 and 2021, Willis was named one of 25 semifinalists. In 2022, he was named one of the final 15. Unfortunately, Willis missed out this year behind the six modern–day selections of Tony Bosselli, LeRoy Butler, Sam Mills, Richard Seymour and Bryant Young. However, Willis was inducted into the 49ers Hall of Fame in December, forever solidifying his place as a team legend.
While Willis awaits his potential call to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he will continue to impact others through his businesses and advocacy. Though his career was cut shorter than anyone expected, Willis lives with no regrets and he knows he has plenty more to offer in his bright future.