The Reporter (Vacaville)
Former All-Pro linebacker Willis recalls severity of toe issues
Patrick Willis’ once-troublesome big toes are “not bad.”
His memories are vivid about the exciting first and mercifully last times he wore the No. 52 jersey.
He’s six years removed from a decorated 49ers career, and he’s grateful for all who’ve helped him get there.
Willis, a day after the 49ers named him and John Taylor to their hall of fame, regaled reporters Thursday in a video conference that touched not only on his life but the current 49ers. Here are the highlights:
1. How is his health?
Now 36, Willis revealed more than he perhaps ever has about the foot issues that prompted his 2015 retirement and ended an eight-year career.
“People would say, ‘It’s just feet, it’s just a freaking toe, get it better.’ But that wasn’t the case. It was almost equivalent to an ACL (tear),” Willis said. “Anyone who’s had a bunion on their big toes, you know how bad it can feel. That’s everything I push off of.
“After I had my surgery, it was bad. I did everything I could to push through that month. For whatever reason, that was not the case . ... My feet said ‘enough’ and I”d have to hang them up. Long story short, the doctor told me, ‘Wow I can not believe he was able to play with his toe like that. It was worse than we thought.”
Six games into the 2015 season, Willis’ feet (and mind) dreaded St. Louis’ artificial turf. He was done. He’s stays active and works out to this day but knows his toes’ limits. He also keeps busy training tips online to coaches.
2. His thoughts on Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and today’s defense?
“Those guys have been playing unbelievable football. They’ve worked really well together,” Willis said. “Fred’s done a great job leading the linebacker corps, and for me, I’m really exicted to see that. I’m always happy for the next man’s success.
“... I’m a firm believer that the defense runs the show. I know the offense is pretty and everything. But when you have a defense that is dominant ... I had to go through growing pains the first four years (200710). The last four years, it was amazing to play with a defense that, across the board, from the D-line to linebackers to DBs — that was amazing. To see the team in 2019, that defense was on point.”
Willis commended how well last year’s defense played despite the loss of so many starters to injuries, and he’s especially fired up to see how they play this year under new defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans.
3. What’s his connection to DeMeco Ryans?
Foot issues kept Willis from entering the NFL Draft after his junior year at Ole Miss, a draft in which the Alabama-product Ryans went No. 33 overall to the Houston Texans. Ryans won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2006, and Willis won it the next year after the 49ers drafted him 11th overall.
“I was a big fan of what he was doing in Houston,” Willis said. “He always reminded me from afar as a guy who’d be an amazing coach the way he commanded the field and his teammates. Those guys are really going to buy into what he has. He’ll bring a little of his own touch, which I’m excited to see.”
4. On entering the hall of fame with John Taylor?
Willis capped his interview by expressing how grateful he was not just to the 49ers and their fans but to go into the Edward J. DeBartolo 49ers Hall of Fame this December alongside John Taylor, a three-time Super Bowl champion who played from 1987-95 and whose stories Willis has adored listening to in recent years.
After Willis’ 2012 team lost in the Super Bowl, he watched NFL Films highlights of previous 49ers’ Super Bowl seasons, and Taylor jumped out at him, although he didn’t know who actually wore No. 82.
“I was watching film and I’d see this guy catching balls, catching slants, and taking it to the house,” Willis said. “I was a big fan of the guys you watch the game and he’s giving everything he’s got every play. I’m noticing that guy is always doing something.
“I would watch these back-to-back runs to the Super Bowl. I’d watch this guy catch and it wasn’t No. 80 (Jerry Rice). I’d see this other guy catch passes and take to the house. I’d say how come I don’t hear anybody talk about who this is. After 2013, we’ve been in the same places and I’d be talking to him, and this is that guy. I’m honored. It’s not so much about Patrick going in, as grateful as I am. Going in with a guy like that, knowing (Bryant Young) is going in the year before, it was amazing, all that energy and history.”
5. Thoughts on social media and social justice?
Willis does a lot of fan engagement on Instagram, and he described his unique handle (“thewhinkersmind”) as a “philosophical brand” rooted in self-discovery while combining words from old English writings. “That’s the side of me that’s beyond the game of just Xs and Os. I like to think metaphysical, quantum physics, sacred geometry,” Willis said.
As for athletes’ involvement in social justice, Willis noted: “I’m a firm believer it’s said we have freedom of speech here. With that being said, everyone has an opinion to have an opinion. I’ve learned to be more silent than outspoken unless there’s something deep down inside me that has to come out. When I do speak of something, I have to have knowledge of it and do research. There’s a lot going on in the world and a lot of noise. I try not to get too caught up in it. I have my own personal opinions and make them be heard if someone asked. To each his own.”