NFL superstar Patrick Willis shocked the football world when he announced his retirement in March 2015. The top-ranked linebacker was at the height of his career and dominated the league, so fans couldn’t understand why he was walking away.
The two-time collegiate All-American at Ole Miss was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 2007, according to Mashable. He racked up 950 tackles for the team, along with 20.5 sacks, eight interceptions, and 16 forced fumbles, the news site also reports. In February, Willis was even ranked the 22nd-best linebacker in NFL history by Athlon.
The football star garnered some impressive stats in a career that spanned just eight years. And although Willis loved the game of football, he knew he had another purpose.
Willis now works at a Silicon Valley tech startup called Open Source Storage, Mashable reports. According to its website, the company essentially offers performance optimization, software development, cloud and storage solutions to other companies. It has also worked with notable startups like Facebook and Shutterfly in the past.
After hanging up his cleats, Willis welcomed a career change and linked up with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eren Niazi, CEO and founder of Open Source Storage. The two were neighbors and quickly became friends after Niazi offered to help the retired football star move some heavy bags from his car, per Mashable.
“Usually when people walk up to me, they kind of already know who I am and have some motive,” Willis told Mashable during an interview this week. “But he just insisted like, ‘Let me help you with that.’ Then he just took off. I thought it was cool.”
Willis and Niazi related to one another, as they shared a similar rags-to-riches story. Willis picked cotton as a child to help support his family and escaped his abusive father by moving in with a basketball coach, Mashable reports. Niazi, on the other hand, dropped out of high school and worked odd jobs to support himself. He was also homeless as a teenager and lived out of his car for some time, the news site reports. Both men ultimately overcame their hardship and enjoyed successful careers.
Willis now commutes to his new job each day, where he serves as the executive vice president. Willis is more than a famous face for the company, however, and occupies a significant role in the progression of the startup.
According to Mashable, the top-ranked linebacker is heavily involved with interviewing potential hires for the company.
Carrie Pendolino, the company’s current VP of marketing, says that when she applied to the position last December, both Willis and Niazi interviewed her, Mashable reports.
“Then I came home and my husband and son were like, ‘Uh, do you know who that was?!?’” Pendolino recalled.
Willis revealed that growing up, he was often told he had to be a “physical specimen that can jump up to here” in order to be great, but he knew there was more to life than that.
“For me, this is an opportunity to be able to tell young kids that you can be more than just a physical specimen to be great,” Willis said. “I’m a person that can’t speak about something until I’ve done it myself.”
His reason for stepping away from the football world was a simple one as well. A career of injuries and general wear and tear on his body from playing the high-contact sport left the 30-year-old worried about sustaining long-term damage if he kept playing, Mashable reports.
“Honestly, I pay attention to guys when they’re finished playing, walking around like they’ve got no hips and they can’t play with their kids. They can barely walk,” Willis explained at his last press conference. “People see that and they feel sorry, but they don’t realize it’s because he played a few extra years.”
A year after his sudden retirement, Willis revealed to Mashable that he hasn’t spent much time following football since he stepped away from the game. The former linebacker says he’ll watch a few highlights here and there, but that’s about it.
“I still respect it,” Willis said of professional football. “But my mind is past it.”