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Remembering Patrick Willis' Ole Miss career

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P-Willie's surprise retirement from the NFL became official earlier this week. Let's take a moment to remember one of the greatest linebackers in college football history.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Willis announced on Tuesday that he will retire from the San Francisco 49ers at the age of 30. Willis retires with an estimated net worth at $50 million and by retiring at such a relatively young age, there's a smaller chance that his later life will be ruined in the way that the toll of football often limits aged players physically.

It's also pretty stunningly heartfelt that Willis is willing to walk away from $10 million a year in order to do what he believes God has called him to do (whatever that may be). That has to be a tough decision to make.

But this isn't about that. This is about celebrating the career of the most prolific linebacker to ever play in Oxford, one who was drafted eleventh overall and more than lived up to that selection. Willis was an incredible force at Ole Miss, and he made headlines for all the right reasons. A dominant player on the field, his off-the-field reputation was pristine as well.

College accomplishments

  • 2× First-team All-SEC (2005, 2006)
  • 2× All-American (2005, 2006)
  • SEC Defensive Player of the Year (2006)
  • Butkus Award (2006)
  • Jack Lambert Award (2006)
  • Conerly Trophy (2006)

Willis wasn't a heralded player coming out of high school. Scout.com ranked him as a two-star player. On Rivals.com, he was a three-star. At the time, Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer told Willis he didn't have room for him in his signing class despite Willis wanting nothing more than to be in Knoxville. Ultimately, Willis signed with David Cutcliffe's Ole Miss Rebels. As a true freshman, Willis played sparingly, mostly involved on the kickoff team and accumulating just 20 tackles. As a sophomore, he was still not a full-time starter (thanks, Coach Cut), but he registered 70 tackles and was named third-team All-SEC. When Ed Orgeron took over, he immediately identified Willis' talent, and everything changed. Willis finished his final two seasons in Oxford with 265 tackles, earning the aforementioned awards in the process.

But more than any of those accomplishments, Willis made Coach O's first two seasons as a head coach bearable. No matter what the outcome, Ole Miss fans could count on him to fly around the field and try to will the team to victory (which rarely, if ever, happened, thanks to horrid offensive production). In 2005 the Rebels scored 17 touchdowns over the course of the entire season. But Willis never publicly complained. That's just not who he is. He's the greatest linebacker ever to play at Ole Miss. Sure. Jeff Herrod accumulated the most tackles of any Rebel in his career and was a very, very good player in his own right, but college football was quite different in 1984. Willis' statistics in Oxford are monumentally prolific.

NFL accomplishments

  • NFC Champion (2012)
  • 7× Pro Bowl (2007-2013)
  • 5× First-team All-Pro (2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012)
  • Second-team All-Pro (2008)
  • 2× NFL tackles leader (2007, 2009)
  • AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (2007)

Unfortunately I haven't gotten to watch Willis as much as I would have liked, based on the region in which I live. Whenever I have seen the 49ers play though, it has been exciting to see Willis shine the same way he did in Oxford. Making the jump up to the NFL was immediate for him, as he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl in each of his first seven years in the league.

Willis' legacy

Willis will certainly be inducted into any College Sports Hall of Fame that can claim him. He should be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame as well. In terms of the Pro Bowl, the only linebackers with more appearances are Lawrence Taylor, Ray Lewis, Mike Singletary, Jack Ham, Junior Seau, and Jack Lambert. That's the Mount Rushmore of linebackers (and a little more). Willis is on that level, and he deserves the same recognition.

He's the type of player that can get even rival fans to cheer. To any young players looking for a pro to emulate, they couldn't pick one better than Patrick Willis.