SANTA CLARA – Mike Singletary admits he was reluctant at first about the inside linebacker from Ole Miss that then-personnel director Scot McCloughan was so excited about before the 2007 NFL draft.
Every clip McCloughan played seemed to show Patrick Willis wearing a cast or a brace on his wrist or hand. Was this guy physical and feisty enough to play linebacker, the position Singletary had played?
Singletary, then the team’s linebackers coach, got his answer at the first padded practice of training camp that summer. Singletary recalled turning to Willis that day and telling him to hit the fullback.
“And he went down there and knocked the living snot out of the guy,” Singletary boomed in a phone interview Tuesday. “I about jumped 3 feet in the air because that’s what I wanted to see. I turned to (then-49ers head coach) Mike Nolan and said, ‘He’s going to be something! He’s going to be one of the best linebackers in the league this year!’”
Singletary was right. Willis started every game as a rookie, played through a broken bone in his hand, and had more tackles than anyone in the league. His 174 combined tackles were 33 better than Denver linebacker D.J. Williams, who was second in that category.
On Tuesday, eight years after McCloughan and Singletary discussed him in the film room, Willis officially retired.
It wasn’t the broken bones in his hand – there would be more during his career – that prompted his retirement. Instead, he pointed to his feet.
“These feet – oh boy, oh boy, oh boy – I make no excuses, but they have worked and they have worked and they have worked,” he said.
Willis, 30, missed 101/2 games of the 2014 season after surgery on the big toe on his left foot. But he said Tuesday problems with his feet and toes date to his days at Mississippi.
Willis said in 2010 he broke a bone in his hand on a Sunday, had surgery on Monday and played in a game on Thursday. Toughness and playing through pain weren’t issues.
But his feet were different. They made him into the player he was – making Pro Bowls his first seven seasons, chasing down wide receivers in the open field – and were preventing him from performing at the level to which he was accustomed.
In recent years, he said, it was almost as if his feet were speaking to him, guiding him to his decision.
“There’s something about these feet – that’s what made me who I am,” he said.
CEO Jed York, general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Tomsula preceded Willis at the podium and shared memories of his career.
When it was time for Willis to stand up, he was wiping tears from his eyes. But he became loose and talkative – at times funny – and it was clear he was content in his decision and he wouldn’t be coming back.
“I don’t know if I feel happier today than the day I came in (to the NFL),” Willis said.
He didn’t detail what he’d do, but others have said he wants to work with children in his native Tennessee.
Willis said he can do whatever he wants and won’t be hobbled due to playing past his prime.
His former coaches said whatever Willis decides to do, he’ll tackle it with same commitment with which he took on the NFL.
“I think what he did on the football field,” Tomsula said, “is a small measure of what he’s about to do.”
Said Singletary: “He’s such a special guy, a humble guy. Talking to him, you’d have thought he was just a special teams player – until you saw him play.”