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SANTA CLARA -- Linebacker Patrick Willis revealed Tuesday he has been battling an injury to the big toe on his left foot that has limited his effectiveness for several seasons.
Willis, 29, is scheduled to undergo season-ending surgery that he hopes will enable him to recapture the form he showed through most of a career that has consisted of seven selections to the Pro Bowl in his first seven seasons.
The 49ers placed Willis on injured reserve Tuesday and filled his roster spot with the signing of running back Alfonso Smith.
“I don’t look to play this game for just another year,” Willis said. “I feel like I have five or six more great years of football left in my body. Unfortunately, this toe was telling me otherwise.”
Willis, who is signed through the 2016 season, is scheduled to earn $8.315 million in pay next season.
His injury came to light on Oct. 13 when he left the 49ers’ game against the St. Louis Rams shortly before halftime. He said he hoped he would be able to continue playing after a few weeks of rest. But it became obvious, he said, that he needed surgery to finally correct the problem. Willis did not go into specifics about his injury.
“It’s been something that I’ve been dealing with for a while now,” he said. “I could argue and say, ‘Should I have done it earlier before it got as bad as it did, before I hurt it worse than I did in the Rams game?’ I could, but I’m not going to, because I felt like at the time, I’ve always been a fighter and always been a competitor, so I’m going to fight and I’m go until I can’t go anymore.
“When I hurt it in the Rams game, it made me nervous then because I knew what I had already been feeling all these years.”
Willis said he feels more comfortable about stepping aside at this point because of the way rookie Chris Borland has played in the past two games. Borland recorded 18 tackles against the Rams, then piled up another 17 tackles in the 49ers’ 27-24 overtime victory against the New Orleans Saints. Borland also recovered the fumble that set up Phil Dawson’s game-winning field goal.
Willis stepped into the NaVorro Bowman’s spot at “mike” linebacker to open the season. Michael Wilhoite continues to start at “jack,” where Willis played in recent seasons.
“As I was doing for NaVorro, Chris is doing for me now,” Willis said. “He’ll have to do it a little while longer.”
Bowman is scheduled to undergo an MRI and could return to practice at some point in the next week. Bowman is trying to return from ACL and MCL tears he sustained in the NFC Championship game in January. It's still uncertain when he might be available to return to game action.
Willis said he opted for season-ending surgery now so that he could hopefully return to action at 100 percent for the start of training camp next year.
And when he returns, he expects to be better than ever.
“To most, it probably looked like, ‘Man, Willis is losing a step,’” he said. “But I promise you, physically and mentally, I’m just as good now as I was early on. But unfortunately the one thing I needed most to make me who I am are my feet. My left side, without a big toe, it’s like trying to grab without a thumb. You just can’t do it.”