Patrick Willis was one of the first notable players to join a trend the NFL had to be concerned about.
Still in the prime of his career, Willis retired prematurely after the 2014 season. The San Francisco 49ers legend battled injuries in his final season but still had a bright future ahead of him.
In an interview earlier this year, Willis elaborated on his decision and why the idea that ‘death is guaranteed’ played a role.
Patrick Willis was an All-Pro linebacker
Patrick Willis had one of the greatest first eight seasons that any NFL player has had, regardless of position.
That is a strong claim, but the numbers and his overall dominance back it up.
A consensus All-American linebacker at Ole Miss, the San Francisco 49ers used the 11th overall pick of the 2007 NFL draft on Willis. The rookie didn’t need long to make an impact, racking up 174 tackles, eight tackles for loss, forcing two forced fumbles, and recording eight quarterback hits.
That fantastic season earned Willis both Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors. Willis followed his rookie year up with 141 tackles, an interception, and eight more tackles for loss in 2008.
Willis ‘only’ earned second-team All-Pro honors that year.
From 2009-12, Willis averaged 94 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, and 8.5 tackles for loss per year. He earned first-team All-Pro honors in all of those seasons.
San Francisco made the playoffs every year from 2011-13. Willis recorded 71 tackles and an interception in eight postseason games.
Willis is a San Francisco 49ers legend
Football-Reference’s Approximate Value system measures Patrick Willis was worth 106 AV in a 49ers uniform. That ranks 12th in 49ers history.
Willis totaled an AV of that magnitude playing only eight seasons. Running back Roger Craig totaled 101 AV in his eight seasons with the 49ers.
They are the only players in team history with an AV above 100 in less than 10 seasons.
Willis only played eight seasons, but he was so dominant in the first seven that he could join the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the coming years. Willis could join another 2007 draftee, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who is eligible for the first time this year.
Patrick Willis cited ‘death is guaranteed’ when he retired
Patrick Willis stunned the NFL world when he followed teammate Chris Borland in retiring after the 2014 season.
Willis missed 10 games in 2014 with a toe injury. Still, it had appeared likely he would have returned to the 49ers in 2015.
In an interview with Yahoo Sports earlier this year, Willis cited the concept of ‘death is guaranteed’ when he explained why he retired early.
When he said that, Willis explained he didn’t mean playing football would result in an earlier death, as other players have cited when they retired.
Willis said that, like anything else, his NFL career would eventually end. In the same way that death is guaranteed, so was the day he’d hang up his cleats for good.
“The NFL is going to end. You have to be prepared. 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.”
Willis said he found that passion in the form of CoachTube.com, an outlet where he and other players — current and former — make video presentations to help teach the next generation.