In earning seven Pro Bowl nods and five First-Team All-Pro honors in eight seasons, many were surprised when Patrick Willis called it a career at the age of 30 in 2015. The former San Francisco 49ers linebacker decided to walk away from the games on his terms and holds no regrets about that decision.
The lessons and principles that have been instilled in him throughout his athletic career have continued to apply in his second chapter, and life has been good. He recently celebrated his 39th birthday. His San Francisco 49ers will take on the Kansas City Chiefs this weekend for a chance at the team’s first Super Bowl title since 1995, and he’s also a finalist for this year’s Hall of Fame class.
Patrick Willis spoke with M&F ahead of the announcement and big game to discuss his experience of playing in Super Bowl XLVII, why training will be forever a part of his lifestyle, and what he believes will be the deciding factor on who’s hoisting the Lombardi on Sunday.
Keep Things Simple, Stick To Your Routine, and Breathe
Patrick Willis recorded 10 tackles for the 49ers as they lost to the Baltimore Ravens 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII. He remembers the intensity of each game increasing leading up to the big one and the nerves that followed as the ultimate goal was within reach.
With the increase in media, celebrities, and the over-the-top presentation of a Super Bowl, it doesn’t have the feel of just another game. Willis was known for his stoicism and had a routine to help take away some of the nerves before each game.
“I would take these deep breaths,” he said. “I always tried to do the things I always did. It was all in the preparation and work for me. No matter what I did, I would still get a little bit of nerves that wouldn’t go away until I got that first hit. After that, you get into a groove and you see what the other team is doing.”
The Competitive Spirit Never Dies
Willis will be the first to tell you that no longer being under the NFL umbrella as an athlete is different. After retirement, he believed he needed to get as far away from the game as possible but if something has been such a significant and rewarding part of your life, it can be hard to put it behind you. He’s able to watch NFL broadcasts now without placing himself in game situations and it has taken all nine years to get to that point.
“I’ll always have a great respect for the game,” Willis says. “But, I’ll always have that competitive nature when it comes to just sports in general. There is something about the competitive nature of athletes. I don’t know if it ever disappears. It could be dormant, but it’s in there. It just takes a little bit of something to wake it up.”
Training Is A Lifestyle
For any former professional athlete, there are lifestyle choices and habits that remain with you throughout life. For Willis, his commitment to fitness and training is still just as important to him now as it was during his athletic career. He no longer has to train with the intensity of preparing to battle 300-pound lineman on any given Sunday and focuses a lot more on functionality and pliability.
One important aspect of Willis’ training now is Nirvana Super. The wellness brand offers products ranging from water, energy shots, and energy drinks. A key ingredient in the product is HMB (hydroxymethylbutyrate), which aids in muscle recovery, endurance, and focus.
“Over the last few years, Nirvana has been a big part of my active and recovery workouts,” Willis said. “What I love most is that sometimes I don’t always like to have a big energy drink, and we have these small shots, which are perfect. It’s a big part of my working out and I’m just very happy to have that supplement at my house.”
Special Teams Will Make The Difference in Super Bowl LVIII
Patrick Willis still bleeds Red, Gold, and White but understands that both the Chiefs and 49ers have their strengths and weaknesses. He feels that the game could be decided by an often overlooked aspect when outcomes are usually discussed.
“The 49ers offense is amazing and has a heck of a defense,” Willis said. “The Chiefs defense makes plays, and they understand that when you just do enough, the offense is gonna get it done. I think [the game] comes down to special teams
“There’s so much hidden yardage in special teams. Whether it’s flipping the field position in different ways, and getting those three points when you need them.
If there was any questioning about who Willis is riding, the “Let’s go Niners” roar he lets out to end the interview said it all.
Hall of Fame in Patrick Willis’ Future?
When Willis decided to walk away from the game at the age of 30, it wasn’t an easy decision and it had been on his mind since his rookie year. He would always ask his vets how would they know when it was time to retire and they would always seem perplexed by the question as they hadn’t given the level of thought to it. The reason the thought resonated so profoundly for Patrick Willis is because he knew everything has an expiration date. He cherished the work he put into the game, and never wanted to stick around if he couldn’t give the effort and energy he was accustomed to.
“I never knew whether it was going to be year three, or play five,” Willis said. “I just said whenever it does happen, you’ll be able to grade me on what I’ve done. That’s how I went about the game.”
Willis has been a Hall of Fame finalist each of the last three years. No football player starts their career with their sights set on Canton, OH and that destination seems even more unlikely when you’re born in Carrol County, TN. With all the obstacles and hurdles Willis had to overcome in his life to be regarded as one of the best at his positions, getting the nod would be a fitting culmination.
“I would be truly honored and have so much gratitude,” he said. “For being a small-town kid, coming from a 1A school and hearing all the statistics about being less likely to succeed. It would just really be an honor and there are so many people to thank. Fingers crossed and we shall see.”
Follow Patrick Willis on Instagram @thewinkersmind.