SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Long before the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame class was announced Feb. 6, Patrick Willis was comfortable with the outcome.
Whether the former San Francisco 49ers linebacker made it or not was of little consequence. Willis knows he gave the game everything he had for as long as he could.
When Willis failed to make the cut to 15 finalists from 25 semifinalists in January, it frustrated many Niners and Willis supporters. When Calvin Johnson, the former Detroit Lions wide receiver who dominated his position in a manner and amount of time similar to Willis, made it on the first ballot, it only added fuel to the fire.
But Willis isn't worried about not making it to Canton in either of his first two tries.
“Before I even got to the NFL, I told myself I just want to make sure that when I'm done, I can look at my body of work and say 'Man, you did that,'" Willis said in a December interview with ESPN. "For me, I would say that right there to me would be more than enough."
That, of course, doesn't mean Willis wouldn't appreciate the opportunity to make it to the Hall of Fame. He just has too much going on now as he continues his transition to life after football. It's a process that has taken some time but now includes elements of tech, philanthropy and, yes, football.
And he has no intention of letting his past cloud his present or his future.
"Really, I'm just focused on growing, moving, learning, just trying to find this rhythm on the other side," Willis said.
Unplugging from football
Growing up in rural Tennessee, Willis never had any doubt about what he wanted to do. He still recalls his first grade teacher reciting the statistical difficulty of becoming a professional athlete. Willis told her he would be part of the less than 1% who make it to the game's highest level.
Indeed, Willis defied the odds, becoming one of the most decorated linebackers in college history at Ole Miss and the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft. He went on to an eight-year career in San Francisco, earning seven Pro Bowl berths and five first-team All Pro nods on his way to a spot on the NFL's All-Decade team for the 2010s.
When Willis retired in 2015, he was 30. Citing a nagging left toe injury (Willis says now he had a similar problem with his right toe) and a wrist ailment that still requires a warm-up for him to do a pushup, Willis believed his football tank was on empty.
How empty? In the days after Willis announced his retirement on March 10, 2015, he disconnected from football entirely. He had no desire to get into coaching. Games held such little appeal Willis moved off the grid and didn't get cable television. He went three or four years without so much as watching a televised game.
Willis didn't hate football by any means. In fact, he missed things like his teammates, the competition, even the cold tubs and massages. He just knew for him to move on, he needed to remove himself from it entirely.
"I understood that this game right here is like a drug and people take drug like a derogatory term but no, it just depends on how it gets you," Willis said. "It was like something I realized, it's like doing a diet. You've got to weigh yourself, some people go cold turkey. I was like I can't be bulls---ing with this because this thing could seriously have me messing around and in limbo like should I go back?"
As Willis revisits his decision, the thoughts build and he makes sure to note he's speaking of his journey, lest anyone believe he's judging a different approach.
"It was kind of like unplugging," Willis said. "You know you can call your internet provider and say the internet is a little slow, I don't know what's wrong with it and they're like 'Have you unplugged it in awhile?' And so I try to use some of those concepts during this process. It's been a journey but I've enjoyed it."
Processing the 'other side'
Football had been such a big part of Willis' life by the time he had rebooted, the world was a different place. Willis was under what he calls a football umbrella for so long he wasn't sure how to reconcile a day without watching film, lifting weights, practicing or any of the other day-to-day minutiae.
Willis' original plan was to jump into the tech world. He had spent his entire playing career in the heart of Silicon Valley and it seemed a natural transition. Two months after his retirement, he became the executive vice president of and invested in Open Source Storage, a provider of data-storage systems. That venture quickly went awry and ended with Willis suing his former business partner for at least $2 million he had invested in the company in 2016, alleging fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.
Suddenly, Willis was again searching for his next step.
"It's a process just like it was a process to get to where you got to in the NFL," Willis said. "It's a process now to find a higher ground and just find that space that you can vibrate in and feel comfortable. Sometimes you can be a little uncomfortable but it's all part of the process."
Willis found what came next at a wedding reception on New Year's Eve in 2018. There, Willis met Wade Floyd, the founder of a startup called CoachTube, an online resource for coaches that features more than 4,000 on-demand videos from more than 1,100 coaches in 50 sports.
Floyd and Willis struck up a conversation and became fast friends, bonding over similar life experiences. Over the next 18 months, the two remained in contact and Willis, struck by the idea of providing instruction not just for coaches but for kids who might otherwise not have access to such instruction, agreed to tape a video course. Willis' "Build the Beast" linebacker training course offers 25 lessons ranging from stretching tips to nutrition to blitzing and mental development.
It was Willis' way of diving back into the football and the tech world, each of which had left mental and physical scars.
"There's the football side and there's the business side," Floyd said. "And the business side... he had a fresh wound that hadn't healed. ... [Since], I have seen such a spark in him."
Willis has expanded his involvement in CoachTube in recent months, becoming an angel investor and advisor. It's allowed him to begin working on more player-specific initiatives. That includes the Football Player Summit, a series of live, free virtual clinics featuring Willis and other former players and coaches providing insight and wisdom from their experiences in the game.
Beyond that, Willis says he has some community outreach projects he's working on aimed at helping kids in foster care.
"He's just one of the best human beings," Floyd said. "You just root for people like that."
And Willis has been dipping his toes back into the football waters as an observer as well. He still doesn't have cable but he uses Hulu to keep tabs on the 49ers and has forged a relationship with some current players, including All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.
"We have a great relationship," Warner said. "He's constantly telling me how good I'm doing and what I need to keep doing. It's just great for him to even be watching me, and acknowledging my play is amazing. Sometimes I feel myself being starstruck but it's real, just the fact that I have his respect really means the world."
Awaiting the Hall call
While Willis has made semifinals in his first two years on the Hall of Fame ballot he has yet to breakthrough to 15 finalists, let alone the induction class. Fellow linebackers Zach Thomas and Clay Matthews were finalists this year but Matthews is set to move to the seniors category next year.
One Pro Football Hall of Fame voter said it's traditionally tough for a defensive player with no Super Bowl ring to make it to the Hall of Fame. That's not to say Willis won't eventually get in, though, as the 2022 class doesn't have many obvious first-year eligible players and could clear the decks for Willis to make headway.
No matter when it happens, Willis is making sure to enjoy the journey, wherever it may take him next.
"I just try to be in the now," Willis said. "If it takes another 20 years, that would be awesome. I'd rather see guys that are older and being able to enjoy it get my slot and I'll wait another three or four or five or 10 or 20 years to get in when I'm older. ... With that being said, if it happens one day it will be awesome. If not, it will still be awesome."