It’s not often that a star player departs a sport entirely on their terms. Sure, there are some who have decided to hang it up before their team would have formally released them, but that’s typically done with the acknowledgement that the player’s prowess is on the decline. Not often do you see a player considered among the best of their generation just walk away at the height of their powers. And that’s what Patrick Willis is doing.
There was a rumor being bandied about yesterday that Willis’ retirement is the result of a religious awakening on his part. Regardless of the reason, is it really our place to question his motives? If it’s concern over his long-term health that is motivating him to retire, that might be easier for us to grasp, though it doesn’t necessarily make his decision any more or less valid. It could be out of spite for the 49ers. He could simply be sick of football. Any of those reasons should be acceptable to us because it’s Patrick Willis’ decision and not ours.
Patrick Willis doesn’t owe the public anything. I’m sure the abrupt retirement of he and Justin Smith was just one of many disappointments to hit 49ers fans in the past few days, but he doesn’t owe them anything either.
It’s not even like Patrick Willis had a short career. He’s 30 years old; he’s played in the NFL for eight years, which is almost three times as long as the average NFL career. He made the Pro Bowl seven times. He was considered the best inside linebacker in the game for a good half-decade. Are there other career achievements he might have realized? Sure, for example, Willis never won a Super Bowl. Of course, the way things are going for the 49ers, it doesn’t look like that would have happened even if Willis hung around for another three season or so. Even if he thought a Super Bowl run was a possibility, that’s clearly something he weighed against a host of other factors before making this decision.
Beyond acknowledging what a great career Willis had, we should just appreciate that a star player gets to leave before being forced out the door. Based on what we know about the health consequences of football, Patrick Willis still could easily experience the adverse effects of the game based on how long he played. Leaving a few years prematurely probably won’t make that much of a difference. To that, you could say that at least he gets to enjoy a few years of his prime comfortably and not wearing his body out before he turns 40.
That’s to be sorted out later. For now, we wish him the best.