Patrick Willis was on his way to becoming the single greatest inside linebacker to ever play the game. But he walked away. How do fans reconcile with his confounding decision to leave? We take a look back at his amazing career and how he got there.
In what has undoubtedly been the most tumultuous offseason in recent history, the proverbial dagger in the gut was the ousting of head coach Jim Harbaugh who was responsible for lifting San Francisco from the dark ages to three consecutive NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl - he has since traded red and gold for maize and blue. This was followed by the twist of the blade with the departure of franchise rushing king Frank Gore who carried the 49ers for the last decade on two surgically repaired knees - he has since traded Colin Kaepernick for Andrew Luck.
But the cruel and indifferent football gods weren't finished.
On March 10, 2015, Patrick Willis announced to the world, having turned 30 just two months prior, that he was walking away from the San Francisco 49ers, and leaving the game of football, for good.
"I stand up here today...it's tough. It's hard, but it's also easy at the same time because I knew there would be a day, [since] the day that the San Francisco 49ers called me," Willis said, "I knew there would be a day that I would leave. And I always told myself that I wanted it to be on my terms."
Nobody saw it coming.
Before Harbaugh was officially handed his walking papers, rumors of front office discord churned for almost an entire year starting with whispers that he was nearly traded away to the Cleveland Browns. But as the dreadful 2014 season went on, what started as the faintest specter of truth materialized into the league's worst-kept secret by December. Before season's end, we knew he was as good as gone and at least started to think about life after Harbaugh.
And with Gore, we knew it was only a matter of time before he hung up his cleats for good. And if it was too soon for that, we knew it was possible he could lace it up for somebody else.
The point is, for as heartbreaking as it was to lose Harbaugh, Gore, Justin Smith, and whoever else, we were at least somewhat prepared to lose them.
In Patrick Willis's case, nobody saw it coming but Patrick Willis.
His story begins in backwoods Bruceton, Tennessee. Overgrown wheat and long grass bookend a gravel road that leads to a double-wide trailer where Patrick grew up along with his two brothers, Orey and Detris, his sister Ernicka, and their father Ernest.
Think briefly back to when you were 10 and what you were doing at the time. Ten-year-old Patrick had just taken on a full-time job working in the cotton fields to supplement what Ernest made as a part-time logger. Patrick's days started at six in the morning and lasted well into the afternoon with the scorching summer sun above him.
For four years, most, if not all, of his income went to supporting his family. Patrick tells a story of how one summer, he thought to splurge on himself for once with the goal of saving up enough money to buy a nice pair of Jordan sneakers. However, with each paycheck Patrick would earn, his father would sap away at each one, asking for $40 here and $60 there, all to fund his own alcohol and drug use.
And then there was the physical abuse. Ernest disciplined his children by hitting them with pots and pans before transitioning to closed fists once they were ‘old enough.'
"Because our daddy used to say we ain't little no more," Ernicka recalls, "So he'll fight us."
Ernest's abusive nature and enduring vices served in alienating himself from his own children. Patrick - again, just a young teenager - was thrust into the difficult position of being the man of the house, the responsible and compassionate father figure that he and his siblings so desperately needed. In addition to supporting them financially, Patrick played the role of a positive authoritative figure, keeping his siblings motivated to do well in school and stay on top of their studies while also taking care of chores at home.
Patrick was never able to develop a normal, healthy relationship with a father who was "so crazy abusive that [he] started looking at him like a stranger." There is a well-circulated anecdote where, during a pick-up game of basketball, the tension of their caustic relationship would come to a head. Having just lost the game, the hyper-competitive Ernest launched into a violent tirade as he began smacking and hitting Ernicka in the face. Patrick, then 17, decided for the first time in his life to stand up against the abuse and stuck out his hand to defend Ernicka against the next blow.
"It just stopped completely," Patrick said of his father's hand. Ernest looked at his son right in the eyes and warned him that if he ever intervened in his "business" ever again: "I'll kill you."
As a reprieve from his toxic home life, Patrick dedicated himself to sports.
"I'd rather be playing sports than be at home any day," he said. "That was my escape."
At Bruceton Central High School, Willis was a multisport athlete, excelling in baseball, basketball, and especially football. During his senior year at Central, he was nominated for the Mr. Football award on both offense, as a running back, and defense, as a linebacker - a first for the state of Tennessee.
Despite an exceptional high school career, Willis was overlooked by Division I schools. His dream was to play for his childhood favorite Tennessee Volunteers. After every game at Central, Willis and his foster father would make the five-hour drive out to Knoxville just to watch the Vols play. It wasn't an official visit; he just hoped someone, anyone would take notice.
"This was on our gas money and our time," Willis said. "I just wanted to show them how bad I wanted to be there."
Willis remembers seeing all of these big-name prospects shaking hands with and speaking to Tennessee's coaches.
"The coaches never shook my hand," he recalls. "They never talked to me."
During his senior year at Central, on one particular impromptu visit, Willis was able to get in front of Vols head coach Phillip Fulmer himself.
"I really want to come here," Willis remembers telling him. "Do you have something for me? Maybe something just saying you want me?"
Fulmer told Willis they simply weren't interested and were busy recruiting two other linebackers: Ernie Sims and Daniel Brooks (Sims is currently a free agent after bouncing around to five different teams; Brooks never made it to the NFL).
But Fulmer's Vols weren't the only ones to overlook Willis. Try to wrap your head around this: Willis was ranked the 60th-best player at his position in the country. No, not the 60th-best defensive player, the 60th-best inside linebacker.
The only ‘big' schools to make offers? Middle Tennessee State, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss. Willis, having earned a full-ride athletic scholarship, chose Ole Miss.
While he was an immediate contributor on the special teams coverage unit, it wasn't until his junior season when new head coach Ed Orgeron took over that he became a starter on the Rebels' defense. Orgeron recognized Willis' talents immediately.
"Patrick leads by example," Orgeron said before the 2007 NFL Draft. "He is not a big talker. He just gets in there and does his job every day and makes everybody around him better. There will never be another Patrick Willis."
In spite of a broken middle finger, a torn MCL, a broken bone in his foot, and a separated right shoulder, Willis still managed to lead the nation with 90 solo tackles his first year as a starter. It wasn't hard to spot Willis' 6-foot-1, 240-pound frame flying around the field with his right hand contained in a club-like cast.
The Rebels disappointed in Orgeron's first year, finishing with a 3-8 record, but Willis' phenomenal play was enough to keep fans excited.
"In 2005 the Rebels scored 17 touchdowns over the course of the entire season. But Willis never publicly complained. That's just not who he is," writes Red Cup Rebellion, SB Nation's Ole Miss football blog. "He's the greatest linebacker ever to play at Ole Miss...Willis' statistics in Oxford are monumentally prolific."
By the end of his senior year, Willis' résumé was staggering: twice earned First-team All-SEC honors, two-time All-American, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Butkus Award winner, Jack Lambert Award winner...
And just in case the hardware and accolades weren't enough, his scouting combine performance alone, in which he ran a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash and recorded a 39-inch vertical leap, had scouts talking.
"For an inside linebacker, those numbers are pretty much unheard of. He's one of the fastest inside linebackers the combine has seen in a long time," said Rob Rang, CBS Sports' draft insider. "This kid could walk in and instantly be his team's leading tackler and best defensive player.
"In a lot of ways, he looks like the perfect player."
Heading into the 2007 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers were desperately searching for an impact player to revive a 26th-ranked defense that allowed the most points in the league that year.
Their ragtag linebackers corps, which featured the likes of Brandon Moore, Derek Smith, and Jeff Ulbrich, was serviceable on a good day, but they had long reached their collective ceiling (it wasn't very high) and they certainly weren't getting younger. The 49ers needed a shot in the arm.
"Every time I saw [Willis on game tape], he had a cast on his ankle, he had a cast on his forearm...what's up with this guy?" laughs Mike Singletary, then-linebackers coach for the 49ers. "When I heard his story, I was like, ‘Wow! I'm impressed. We've got to get this kid.'"
Then-head coach Mike Nolan and personnel director Scot McCloughan had to be thrilled to see Willis still on the board when San Francisco came on the clock at No. 11. And while they used up just about all 15 minutes of their allotted time before calling in their selection, everyone knew the 49ers couldn't pass up this match made in football heaven.
It took no time at all for Willis to make an impression on the league.
By opening day, he had won a job as San Francisco's starting "Mike" linebacker, playing in a Monday Night Football double-header against the Arizona Cardinals. In his very his game as a pro, he led the team with 11 tackles, 9 of which were solo, and a forced fumble, earning him Rookie of the Week honors.
Coincidentally, it was in a game against Arizona later in the season that Willis would make a play to define his career.
In overtime, Kurt Warner's Cardinals looked to put away the 49ers for good. Warner threw a short right pass to receiver Sean Morey who made the reception at Arizona's own 16-yard line and had a clear running path ahead of him. Morey blazed down the right sideline, looking to run in the game-winning touchdown. But right behind him, like a freight train quickly gaining speed, Willis closed the gap some 60 yards down the field, leaping forward and throwing his arms around Morey's waist to bring him down to the ground. San Francisco would take the game, 37-31.
It was easily one of the most impressive displays of athleticism I had ever seen in football, but far from the last we would see from Willis.
He went on to finish the season leading the league with 174 total tackles, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 5 pass deflections. And for his efforts, he was one of two 49ers represented in the Pro Bowl (Andy Lee being the other), not to mention Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and first-team All-Pro. The fact that it was only Willis' rookie season bears repeating.
On the day Willis officially announced his retirement from the NFL, Damon Bruce posed this question to listeners on his radio show: What is the quintessential Patrick Willis play? The one that we'll remember 20 years from now. The truest embodiment of what made him so amazing.
Was it the one where he bowled over Joseph Addai behind the line of scrimmage? Was it when he chased down Morey 62 yards down the field to save the game-winning touchdown? Was it the bone-rattling hit on Brad Smith that I could feel from my living room couch?
Bruce couldn't come up with a definitive answer. And that, in and of itself, is Willis' legacy. The fact that there are simply way too many amazing plays to choose from is a testament to just how great he really was. His legacy is as clear as day, and all you need to do is turn on the tape.
I dwelled over Willis' surprise retirement for much longer than I care to admit, but it wasn't until I really thought about something he said during his farewell press conference that I realized how shortsighted and selfish my line of thinking was.
"It's amazing what we see with the eyes instead of what we actually know," Willis said in a shaken voice. "And, man, if only you knew what it took to go out there on Sundays and play this game.
"Some of you really would sometimes probably just take a breath and be thankful that you get to have something to cover, that you get to have something to go out there and watch, that we do get to bring the kind of joy that we bring to this game."
Football is a blood sport, and sometimes, as the spectators, we forget that. If Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, or anyone else chooses to walk away from it, that's truly their prerogative and nobody should think any less of them for it.
Through eight incredible years, Pat thrilled us all with an unmatched intensity on the field and an equally endearing personality off of it. We should be forever grateful. It will likely be a long time before we see another one like him.