49ers’ offseason farewells

I remember the first play of Patrick Willis’ career with absolute clarity.

Eight years ago on a Monday night at the Stick, as commentators are want to do, they were full of hyperbole about the rookie out of Ole Miss wearing 52. I’d read plenty of reports about the explosive muscleman in the preseason too. Expectations were high as Niners fans searched for a saviour.

Arizona’s first play was a sweep right. Two linemen were out in front of the running back. #52 tore between them losing no pace at all before smashing into the hapless back with such force that the RB went tumbling backwards several yards. It was such a perfectly legal hit that the Cardinals players immediately deemed it illegal, remonstrating with Willis while the running back looked on stunned.

As another Niner pulled Willis away from the melee he wore a befuddled look, hands out in front opening saying, “what was wrong with that?”

On the return game that year, Willis victimized Arizona again. The 49ers were trying to break a long losing streak and the game in OT. Warner threw a quick out caught by wide receiver Sean Morey at their own 15. He raced down the sideline, #52 in pursuit behind him as a safety came across, taking a bad angle. As the receiver crossed the 50, the improbable happened. Actually to write that is an injustice. Something that has never happened before happened.

#52 chased down the receiver from behind. Made the tackle at about the 25. Cards shanked the chip shot field goal and the 49ers D eventually stripped Warner to get a win.

Those two plays are enshrined in my mind for good reason. Not only do they embody a player with terrific talent, more importantly they embody a player who tried his best. And never gave up. You were never in doubt with #52. If he was beaten, the play was too good. He was humble on and off the field. Far more likeable than the other #52 he followed career-wise and was often compared to. Along with #21, Frank Gore, Niners fans had two people to marvel.

No player this good has left the league this early into his career since Barry Sanders. Like Sanders, his early retirement ensures that we remember him in his prime. A man who runs, not fades, into the Hall of Fame.

Willis’ replacement, both last year when injured and after his retirement was Chris Borland.

Until he retired a week after Willis.

It’s hard to find a rookie retirement surpassing a future Hall of Famer ending his career earlier than expected for shock value, yet if that was ever to be the case, then this could be it.

Unlike the athletic freak that was Willis, Borland was made of short arms and legs. GM’s were unable to look past his physical shortcomings and he was not selected until the 3rd round. Once Willis went down, Borland took over. Apparently he wasn’t fast, yet there he was time and time again. 107 times to be precise, in only 8 starts.

He added two picks in a defensive win at the Meadowlands too. For a linebacker to reach that stat in 16 games is great. For a rookie to in eight starts and six other bit parts is phenomenal. It made him a candidate for defensive rookie of the year and a top 10 pick now in draft re-makes. A future star at the very least.

Borland’s decision to retire due to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) concerns is arguably the most courageous decision the NFL has seen. Who walks away from at least $50 million over something that might happen? Only 1 in roughly 3,200 so far.

A new era has begun. Concerns over health may mean that players leave the game early. One contract and done? Win a Super Bowl and decide to leave the game while physically on top? And what will this mean for players at college who receive not a single cent while the colleges themselves reap millions in TV revenue?

The elephant in the room has stamped his feet. The NFL and colleges are on alert. The man who is the first to walk over that money and through that door deserves to be applauded for courage, for conviction and for being the inspiration that many other players want. That some may even need.

The 49ers offseason has seen a highly successful coach depart, #21 leave for a shot at a Super Bowl and more money and several starters on both offense and defense walk due to salary cap management. The 49ers will argue that they had a plan for all of these and they appear to have a talented young crop ready to emerge from back ups to starters.

The retirements though were not part of the plan and will take some time to address. They stand out in an awesomely perverse fashion, for I am sad we don’t have these players pulling us to another victory, yet happy they leave the game on top. Willis and Borland, I offer my humble congratulations on fine careers.

About Josh Slocum

Born into the red and white of the South Melbourne Swans, I remember being amazed at age 7 to see a team with our colours that actually won something when the 1984 49ers won the Superbowl. I've been following the red, white and gold ever since. Of recent times my frustrations at not winning a Superbowl since 1994 can be heard occasionally on the aussieguysnfl podcast.

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