Had it come at another time, the unexpected retirement of Patrick Willis would have been trailed by a number of beautifully crafted paeans to a man whose remarkable life to this point merits thoughtful, inspired examination.
Unfortunately, the star linebacker’s farewell to football comes at a time when the slow-building storm that’s been ripping the 49ers apart, piece by excruciating piece, appears fueled by an accelerant that will soon leave in its wake nothing more than the charred hull of a franchise that a year and a half ago seemed destined for dynastic dominance.
So instead of Willis’ retirement being about a special human being’s remarkable journey, it’s being painted as part of a truly pathetic picture, perhaps even emblematic of one of the most dramatic implosions in NFL history.
That’s not to say the narrative is off-base. When so much is going on with the same team, each story begs to be connected to all the others, and Willis’ announcement came with so little warning that it absolutely begged the questions:
Is this really about his health, or his desire to spread the gospel, or work with underprivileged youth in his native Tennessee? Or is he taking his leave because, as a man who oozes the very integrity and unparalleled class with which the Niners’ Kid Jester of an CEO hollowly vows to conduct business despite every shred of evidence pointing to the contrary, Willis simply wants to disassociate himself with the mess that is all things 49ers right now?
You certainly couldn’t blame him if it’s the latter, though you have to believe him when he says it’s the former. He’s earned the benefit of any doubt. But there is doubt, and plenty of it, born of a series of contradictions and embarrassments and flat-out lies coming out of Santa Clara headquarters for the better part of a year.
It’s an absolute shame because Willis’ story deserves a thorough, detailed and incisive telling. Circumstances, however, as well as today’s blink-and-you-miss-it news cycle, leave even those of us who know damn well what a deserving subject is Willis’ rags-to-riches, Disney-wouldn’t-dare-dream-of-this tale to offer only the Cliff’s Notes.
Willis grew up dirt poor, his mother having bailed on the family early, leaving young Patrick to take over something of a man-of-the-house role for his three younger siblings by age 10, when he went to work picking cotton full-time. Why would a boy have to assume such a role? Because the biological man of the house — it was actually a trailer, not a house — was an alcoholic whose tendency toward violence prompted Willis and his siblings to flee their father’s unstable influence when Patrick was all of 17.
The story takes a lot of glorious turns thereafter, save the accidental drowning death of one of the siblings nearly a decade ago. Willis, as most fans know, was a star at Mississippi, but far from considered a can’t-miss kid coming out of college. That’s only because nobody knew back then that Willis didn’t just have Hall of Fame talent, but the heart, passion and work ethic to match.
We know now. We’re awed by it. And we’re left feeling a little bit robbed, as most of us do when an athlete hangs ’em up in the middle of what we’re told is a pro’s athletic prime. But the feeling is fleeting, because our attention is being directed elsewhere, to the latest questionable signing or arrest or whatever else is going on in the name of sabotage.
Try to resist all that for a while, though. Make a vow to appreciate Willis and what he represents. He was — he is — everything we have a right to want our sporting heroes to be, and heroes should never fade into the sunset. They should be followed wherever their path takes them away from the field.
Keep an eye on Patrick Willis. Listen when he speaks, and support the causes he backs. And no matter what, never forget that no matter how hollow the Kid Jester’s words are when he speaks of integrity and class, there was, in fact, a player who embodied that for as long as he wore the red and gold.
Thanks, No. 52. You’re already missed.
Mychael Urban has been covering Bay Area sports for 25 years and has worked for MLB.com, Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and KNBR (680 AM).