If Patrick Willis left the NFL too early, as many people he has met over the past three years have suggested, he also wonders: When it would have been too late?
After his surprising decision to retire following the 2014 season after eight years in the NFL, Willis said Tuesday on The 49ers Insider Podcast that he has never second-guessed his decision to walk away – while his feet still enabled him to walk.
“For me, I felt like it was the perfect time -- my body, everything,” Willis said. “The stars aligned for me. I never set out to play this game for anyone else’s expectations or what they thought I should do and how I should do it.
“I believed in myself before anyone else saw it. I never put that in anybody else’s hands. So for me, it was the right time.”
Willis had an incredible run with the 49ers. He was selected with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 draft from Ole Miss. He was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he went on to earn seven Pro Bowl selections – and five first-team All-Pro honors – in his first seven seasons.
He went on injured reserve in 2014 due to a toe surgery after appearing in just six games. In March of 2015, he announced his retirement from the NFL.
“I always told myself when I no longer had the passion to play, I would let it go and pass it on to the next (man) up,” Willis said. “And I feel like I was able to do that to NaVorro (Bowman) and continue on my path in life.”
Bowman and Willis teamed up for three seasons to form one of the most destructive linebacker combinations the league has ever seen. Willis said his passion diminished at the end of his career because of the pain he endured in order to play at the highest possible level.
Bowman experienced serious knee and Achilles injuries with the 49ers. The club released him last season. After playing the final 10 games of 2017 with the Raiders, Bowman, now 30, remains an unsigned free agent.
Willis said he physically feels a lot better. He can still work out and remain in shape, but he is not able to push his body to the lengths it would take to withstand the rigors of the NFL.
When Willis left the NFL, he said he did not have a great desire to remain involved in football.
But, now, he is sharing his expertise with an online course for linebackers on “CoachTube.” Willis has a tutorial, “Build the Beast,” which addresses warmups, drills, film study, nutrition and the mindset necessary to play linebacker.
Willis said he is enjoying getting on the field and demonstrating some of the drills and techniques he perfected during his career. But he is not sure he wants to make the kind of life-altering commitment necessary to coach football on a full-time basis.
”This game has taken up most of my life,” Willis said. “For me, right now and where I am in this space, I don’t see that path for me at this time. Maybe later, when I’m around my 40s or something.”