Star linebacker Patrick Willis shocked football fans when he left the NFL last year at the peak of his career. After eight fruitful years, the then 30-year-old linebacker ended his run in the league with an accumulated 950 tackles, 20.5 sacks, eight passes deflected and 16 forced fumbles for the San Francisco Niners.
Ranked as the 22nd-best linebacker in NFL history by Athlon, Willis was a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end.
Most sports fans may be more surprised to know, however, that the retired NFL superstar is not off a yacht on the coast of some exotic paradise, sipping wine and enjoying his retirement. At least, not yet.
Right now, Willis spends most of his time in Silicon Valley, working for Open Source Storage, a tech startup that provides storage and infrastructure solutions to other firms.
“People always told me when I was growing up that if you want to be something great, you have to be this physical specimen that can jump up to here and all that,” Willis told Mashable.
“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. I’m a person that can’t speak about something until I’ve done it myself.”
The turning point in Willis’s career came after a toe injury kept him sidelined for most of 2014. He knew he needed to adapt and reinvent himself.
“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 said in his farewell announcement. “People see that and they feel sorry, but they don’t realize it’s because he played a few extra years.”
A chance encounter with neighbor and Open Source Storage CEO and founder Eren Niazi months after his retirement would turn out to be the beginning of Willis’s next path.
As it turned out, Niazi and Willis not only shared the same work ethic but also the similar rags-to-riches background. As a kid, Willis worked as a cotton picker to help support his family and in his teens had to leave home to flee an abusive father. Niazi, on the other hand, was a high school dropout who lived in his car and did odd jobs to survive. In his early 20s, he launched Open Source Storage in 2001.
The two hit it off immediately, and barely two months after Willis announced his retirement, he has signed up as a board member and executive vice president for Open Source Storage.
“It just felt like, a lot of times in my other occupation, it was all about you as an individual,” he said. “Here, I’m part of a team in a little bit of a different way.”