Why would an NFL star retire when he can still play? Patrick Willis explains why he walked away in his prime

Frank Schwab
·7 min read

When Patrick Willis was starting his NFL career, he was already thinking about the end.

A first-round pick in 2007, Willis would have conversations with fellow San Francisco 49ers linebackers Jeff Ulbrich, Derek Smith and Brandon Moore about what happened after football. That’s uncommon for a rookie. Like most NFL players, Willis’ teammates were focused on the here and now.

Willis focused too. That’s how he became a seven-time Pro Bowler. But he always had thoughts about how he wanted his football journey to end.

“The way I look at things, death is guaranteed. The NFL is going to end. You have to be prepared,” Willis said in a phone interview to promote the instructional site CoachTube.com.

“I knew one day it would end. I didn’t know if that would be on my first play, the end of my third year or my eighth. For me, when the time came it was all about being honest. I didn’t want to hang around and collect checks. The money was good, but it was about being an athlete, having the passion.”

The passion was gone after his eighth season, when toe surgery limited Willis to six games. So he did what many people can’t fathom: Willis walked away from the NFL just after he turned 30. He’s one of the prime examples of players retiring from the NFL before it’s too late. Sometimes an early retirement is more complicated than worrying about an injury.

Willis had it all planned out. He hasn’t had any regrets.

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis after a 2014 win over the Chiefs. It would be his second-to-last NFL game. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis after a 2014 win over the Chiefs. It would be his second-to-last NFL game. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Patrick Willis’ reasons for retiring after eight seasons

From the outside world, it doesn’t make much sense to retire from the NFL unless there are serious health concerns involved.

How many people would walk away when Willis did? Even on two bad feet, he could have played. He had more than $21 million in bonuses and salary left on his five-year, $50 million deal. He had a good Pro Football Hall of Fame case and he could have strengthened it with a few more good seasons. And ...

“Wait, wait, wait,” Willis said, interrupting the question before it’s asked. “You’re naming all the things outside of yourself that can’t fulfill you. That’s not how I wanted to be remembered.”

Willis wasn’t worried about the Hall of Fame or adding millions more to his bank account. He had made a promise to himself.

“I said, when I’m no longer the person who wakes up and wants to give the game everything I have, when I don’t have that passion, I’ll know it’s time to do something else and let someone else with that passion take over,” Willis said.

Willis didn’t necessarily have a set number of seasons in mind, but he knew it wouldn’t be many.

“It was never meant for me to play a long time,” Willis said. “I was like, how do guys do this for 13, 14 years?”

It was Willis’ third or fourth year when his feet started hurting. He knew time was ticking. Then there was the constant grind. Rehab for various injuries was the worst. He admits he was “grumpy” in the locker room. He said he’d look at the young players in the locker room having fun and knew he wasn’t anymore.

He had prepared for what came next. He retired, a stunning announcement for a great player who could have kept playing at a high level, collected that $21 million and maybe more. He told the 49ers in early March of 2015, giving them time to find his replacement. He said he didn’t want to wait and cost a young player the opportunity to chase the same chance he had.

“When I felt it in my gut, I felt it constantly. I knew, I can’t do this anymore,” Willis said. “I told myself, ‘Patrick, you knew this was going to come so don’t get down.’”

Many NFL players live in the moment, and it’s hard to blame them. It’s tough to hang on in professional football. Many players keep going until they can’t make a team anymore, and it’s tough to blame them for that either. It’s a lucrative career and it doesn’t last long. It was different for Willis. He knew what he wanted to get out of the NFL.

He walked away while he could still have good feelings about the game, which is one reason he likes teaching it today.

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement at a news conference on March 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement at a news conference on March 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Willis settles into post-NFL life

Willis said he didn’t watch a game his first year in retirement. The 49ers brought him back for a game at some point, but he can’t remember which year it was. He didn’t have any tinge of sadness when he watched the 49ers play in a Super Bowl a few months ago. He admits he misses his teammates and the camaraderie, but he knows he made the right choice.

“Football wasn’t a be all, end all,” Willis said. “I enjoyed it, and when it ended I wanted the luxury to do the things I wanted to do.”

He said he feels good that he was honest with himself and didn’t continue to play after his desire waned. As he said it, he wanted his teammates to know he always gave maximum effort for them and was never “half-assing it.”

“Knowing I was true to my core, it’s priceless,” Willis said. “That’s why I can be at peace today and talk like I do about football with no resentment. They didn’t kick me out.”

Willis is enjoying his life, free of the physical and mental stress of being a full-time football player. CoachTube.com helps keep him connected to the game. He wasn’t interested in traveling but wanted to share his experience.

He and other former and current players and coaches make video presentations on CoachTube.com, which has videos for all sports. Willis’ first video session dealt with all aspects of playing linebacker, from training to physical tips like how to use leverage, and film study on the mental side of the game.

“I wanted to give back, to share some of the knowledge I gained,” Willis said. “CoachTube allows athletes and coaches to learn and teach online, and especially now, that’s important.”

Willis said he is doing mostly fine physically. He feels some of the aches and pains all former football players do, but it sounds like he got out at the right time. Being in the NFL isn’t always a dream job, but Willis said he has let go of any bad feelings.

“I gave a lot to it, but I got a lot from it too,” Willis said.

Perspective isn’t easy for players. They’re young, among the greatest athletes in the world and earning a lot of money. They’re not often thinking about what will happen years down the road, and definitely not about retirement.

Willis was different from the start, when he said he was worried he’d be cut after a rough first training camp practice — something that wasn’t going to happen to the 11th pick of the draft. But Willis had his football mortality in mind at all times, and that’s how he got the ending he wanted.

“I wanted to be able look back at the game film and be honest say say, you gave everything you had,” Willis said. “And I did that.”

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