A gladiator on the gridiron, Patrick Willis fought back tears as he stepped to the podium on Tuesday for the last time as a member of the San Francisco 49ers.
But sadness was not the overarching sentiment Willis conveyed during his farewell press conference.
Yes, saying goodbye to football seemed difficult for the seven-time Pro Bowler. But as Willis began to speak, a sense of calm and joy appeared to wash over him. Those emotions manifested in an ear-to-ear grin – even as Willis’ eyes remained bloodshot.
“As I stand up here today, it’s tough, it’s hard, but it’s also easy at the same time,” Willis said. “I knew there would be a day I’d leave, and I always told myself that I wanted it to be on my terms.
“So here I am today standing before you guys, not as a perfect man, but as an honest man… I have no regrets.”
Willis retires from professional football after eight standout seasons that saw him reach seven Pro Bowls. But at 30 years old, Willis said his body, more specifically his feet, could not keep up with the rigors of the NFL.
The assets that helped make him a star eventually forced his departure from the game.
“I know I no longer have it in these feet to go out there and give you guys that kind of ‘Wow.’”
Willis missed the final 10 games of the 2014 season after suffering a toe injury on the turf in St. Louis. Days before he underwent surgery to repair the big toe on his left foot, Willis told reporters that his feet had been bothering him for years.
The veteran reiterated those remarks on Tuesday, implying that his medical woes would prevent him from playing at the elite level that he demanded from himself.
“As much as I’d love to win a Super Bowl and to bring number six back here, I have to be honest,” Willis said. “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.
“And to be sitting on the sideline just collecting a paycheck, I feel like that would be wrong. So I stand up here today with that conviction. I understand the magnitude of what I’m doing today.”
To the same extent, Willis also voiced concerns about his quality of life after football if he continued to play through the pain.
“Honestly, I pay attention to guys when they’re finished playing, walking around like they’ve got no hips and they can’t play with their kids. They can barely walk,” Willis said. “People see that and they feel sorry, but they don’t realize it’s because he played a few extra years.
“For me, there’s more to my life than football. It has provided an amazing platform for me to build on, but it’s my health first and everything else just kind of makes sense around it.”
“One thing I’ve always lived by is giving everything you’ve got today, so when you look back tomorrow, you won’t feel ashamed because you left something on the table,” Willis said. “I feel like in my eight years, there was not a day when I didn’t give this game everything I had.”
CEO Jed York, general manager Trent Baalke and Jim Tomsula also spoke at the press conference, each offering testimonials on Willis' contributions to the organization on and off the field.
For fans holding out hope that the linebacker might eventually return to the 49ers, Willis shot down any future comeback attempt. Willis cited how Brett Favre wavered at the end of his career, so he made sure his decision would be final before publicizing it.
“I’ve had the most amazing eight years of football being a part of this historic organization,” Willis said, “but I am leaving this with closure. I am happier today than I was the day I was drafted. And that says something to me.”
As for what’s next, Willis didn’t go into detail. Many have reported that he wants to work with youth in his native Tennessee. On Tuesday, Willis said the beauty of leaving football at such a young age allows him to do whatever he wants.
“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.”