SANTA CLARA -- Patrick Willis’ feet were his biggest strength during his eight-year NFL career.
His feet propelled him to greatness from the moment he stepped onto the playing field as a rookie in 2007. And, now, he said his feet will carry him onto the next chapter in his life.
Willis, who demonstrated uncommon speed for a linebacker as a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine, earned his way into Pro Bowl selections in each of his first seven seasons in the league.
Last season, he opted for season-ending surgery to repair a damaged big toe after six games. On Tuesday, he announced his retirement in a press conference at Levi’s Stadium.
“I don’t know what it is about these feet, but they got y’all saying, ‘Wow, where was that guy? Where did he come from?’ ” Willis said. “I no longer have that in these feet to go out there and give you guys that kind of ‘Wow.’ . . . I know I don’t have too much left in these toes.”
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Willis said his physical inability to generate the kind of foot speed that separated him from the typical NFL linebacker was a signal that it was time to step away from the sport at the age of 30.
“It’s my health first and everything else kind of makes sense around it,” Willis said.
“When the Lord has something for you, He’s going to make sure it goes done. And my feet, as much as I want to go out and play with NaVorro (Bowman) and as much I want to play with Chris (Borland) and be on the field wreaking havoc and bringing (Super Bowl) No. 6 back here, I have to be honest.”
Willis added, “If I don’t have what I know I need to give my teammates and organization the best chance to win, then I can’t be out there doing that.”
CEO Jed York, general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Tomsula spoke emotionally about Willis as a player and person while Willis sat in the front row of the auditorium and wiped tears from his face.
But after Willis stepped onto the podium, he gathered his emotions and addressed the media for nearly 22 minutes with some Scripture and light-hearted moments. In the end, he said he was completely at peace with his decision to walk away.
“I don’t know if I feel happier today than the day I was drafted, and that says something to me,” he said.
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Willis was certainly on pace for a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with six All-Pro selections. But he said he did not want to hang on and play at a level that would not meet the standard he set for himself.
“This closure, this chapter, to me feels like a Hall-of-Fame type environment already,” Willis said.