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CAMPBELL, Calif. — Close your eyes and picture the life of a retired NFL superstar. Maybe you envision a moveable feast — private jets, exclusive parties and beautiful companions. Maybe you see something quieter, day after day in the backyard watching the grass grow.
Patrick Willis' life after retirement resembles neither. One of the greatest linebackers in modern NFL history, Willis made the Pro Bowl in seven of his eight professional seasons. Then he shocked the football world when he walked away from the game in March 2015 at age 30.
Now Willis' life is — well, probably not at all what most NFL fans would expect.
Monday through Friday, Willis commutes to work at a Silicon Valley office park. He's got a list of favorite lunch spots nearby. Sometimes he takes video calls from home, or instant messages with colleagues after hours.
Like so many people who share his age range and geographic area, Willis now works at a tech startup.
Willis picked cotton as a kid in Tennessee to help support his family. He and his siblings later moved in with a basketball coach to flee an abusive, alcoholic father. But sports — he was a two-time collegiate All-American at Ole Miss before the NFL — offered salvation.
Now Willis sees something different in the business world.
"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 in an interview this week.
Seated in a conference room at the office of Open Source Storage, his new employer, Willis still sported the bulging physique of an NFL star. But dressed in tan pants and a black T-shirt, his outfit could have been that of any other Silicon Valley tech worker.
"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."
But Willis' remarkable story of empowerment and reinvention might not have happened this way at all. It begins with a chance encounter between Willis and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose journey has much in common with Willis' own path to the NFL.
A legendary career abbreviated
Image: Paul Spinelli/AP
Forged by his tough childhood and propelled by prodigious athletic gifts, Willis became an instant star for the San Francisco 49ers after the team drafted him 11th overall out of Ole Miss in 2007.
He racked up 950 tackles for the Niners, plus 20.5 sacks, eight interceptions and 16 forced fumbles. He terrorized opposing offenses from sideline to sideline, all the while acting as an on-field general for the San Francisco defense.
This February, Athlon ranked Willis the 22nd-best linebacker in NFL history — a plaudit that's double impressive when you consider his career lasted half as long as those of some other players.
Then in March 2015, Willis shocked the world by retiring after the 49ers hastily called a press conference.
Image: Jeff Chiu/AP
He was only 30 years old, but Willis' rationale was simple. A career of injuries made him worry his elite days were behind him, and he didn't want to sustain more longterm physical damage.
“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 press conference. “People see that and they feel sorry, but they don’t realize it’s because he played a few extra years.
“For me, there’s more to my life than football. It has provided an amazing platform for me to build on, but it’s my health first and everything else just kind of makes sense around it.”
What the world didn't know then was the wheels had already been put in motion for Willis' next step.
Parallel paths on different tracks
Image: Sam Laird, Mashable
Eren Niazi's career arc is one of those classic Silicon Valley fables. He grew up in the area, but dropped out of high school and didn't attend college. He did odd jobs like washing dishes to get by. He lived out of his car for a period as a teenager.
"Apple's Steve Jobs Would See Himself in Tech Pioneer Eren Niazi," squawked a headline on TheStreet two years ago.
Gradual grinding and bold ambition helped Niazi get a foothold in the tech industry. He began on the business side for Fry's Electronics and Circuit City, then launched Open Source Storage in 2001 while still in his early 20s. He was later pushed out of his own creation, but then relaunched it in 2013.
Niazi and Willis, both extremely successful men from different fields, also happened to live in the same Silicon Valley neighborhood. Several months before he retired, Willis was recovering from a surgical operation when Niazi spotted him wrestling to move bags from his car to front door.
"Usually when people walk up to me, they kind of already know who I am and have some motive," Willis recalled this week. "But he just insisted like, 'Let me help you with that.' Then he just took off. I thought it was cool."
Niazi wasn't being polite or nonchalant, though. He doesn't follow sports and has never been to a 49ers game.
He simply had no idea who Willis was.
As the two neighbors got to know one another more, Willis found himself impressed by Niazi's rags-to-riches story and tech-industry success. Niazi, in turn, was impressed by the traits that made Willis an NFL star, as well as the player's curiosity for life beyond football.
About two months after he announced his retirement from the NFL, Willis signed on full-time with Open Source Storage as a board member and executive vice president for partnerships.
He's got the LinkedIn page and everything.
Hearing Willis and Niazi discuss their working relationship — after years of watching Willis deliver bone-crushing NFL hits — is surreal.
Here's Niazi: "A lot of guys come in with a big ego, but Patrick’s not like that. He's just a total pleasure to work with."
And now Willis: "It just felt like, a lot of times in my other occupation, it was all about you as an individual. Here, I'm part of a team in a little bit of a different way."
Unlike the many apps and games that have made technology a popular phenomenon, Open Source Storage is a behind-the-scenes player. Basically, the company provides storage and infrastructure solutions to other companies. (Niazi's original iteration of the company worked with Shutterfly, Friendster and Facebook, among others.) It currently has about 60 employees, some full-time and some on contract.
When Carrie Pendolino, the company's current vice president for marketing, applied for an opening last December, both Willis and Niazi interviewed her.
"Then I came home and my husband and son were like, ‘Uh, do you know who that was?!?’” Pendolino recalled recently.
It's a situation others can likely relate to; Willis is involved in interviewing most of the company's prospective hires.
Image: Sam Laird, Mashable
He still works out, and he fishes sometimes, too. But that's Willis' life these days: A full-on Silicon Valley tech worker.
He watched some NFL highlights this past season — his first away from the sport — and caught bits and pieces of random games here and there. But he really hasn't followed football much since retiring last year.
"I don't want to rest on what I've done and let that keep me from doing what I want to do," Willis said. "I'd rather be reading something or diving into something and trying to figure it out."
The former all-world linebacker lightly tapped the side of his head at the conference table.
"I still respect it," Willis said of pro football. "But my mind is past it."