Patrick Willis, Frank Gore and Justin Smith are all leaving the 49ers?

Patrick WIllis and Frank Gore were two very important players for the 49ers in the past decade. Now both are no longer going to be with the team.

I remember when I first met Patrick Willis. It was the summer of 2009 and I had just begun my first season covering the 49ers for Examiner.com several months earlier. It was a screening for “The Taking of Pelham 123” and Willis was hosting the screening with Alex Smith. I was invited to attend the screening and had a chance to interview both players. Willis was entering his third season with the 49ers and had already been selected to two Pro Bowls — he would make the Pro Bowl for seven consecutive years to start his career.

At the time, the 49ers were still struggling to become a winning team but Willis was still excited about the possibility of the team being better and the defense being one of the best in the league. Willis was optimistic and had always been that way his entire career. In the three seasons I got up close with the team, Willis was always great to be around.

He wasn’t the best in terms of giving very elaborate interviews, but as a team leader, he knew that his words carried a lot of weight. Knowing that, he remained professional in every way shape or form with the 49ers. And aside from that, one of the best things about Willis was that he was a genuinely good person. There is no other example you need to read than this story of Willis spending time with a young cancer patient. I remember that day very well and it is one of my favorite highlights covering the team.

So it’s sad for me to hear as a fan and as a professional that Willis is leaning towards retirement. He played an amazing eight seasons in the NFL and just by his accomplishments alone, should be a Hall of Famer. But it’s not just stats for Willis. He was a great leader, a great friend to his teammates and just a great person to represent the 49ers. It’s a shame that he won’t be continuing his NFL career but at the same time, I still can’t stop myself from celebrating all the great things he accomplished and all the good interviews I’ve had with him. I wish him well.

I wish the same for Justin Smith. When Smith joined the 49ers in the summer of 2008, I didn’t fully grasp how important that signing was. He was playing well in Cincinnati and I didn’t think the team needed to make that big of a free agent splash. But what would happen was that Smith would be the anchor of the defensive line and in some seasons, be in the conversation of defensive player of the year.

The best season for Smith may be the 2011 season. Not only was his stock for defensive player of the year at its highest, but we got to see his crazy eyes in the playoffs. What a force for the team!

I remember in the couple seasons that I got to cover the 49ers early on, Smith as not a guy who talked with the media often. In fact, I don’t think I actually talked to Smith until the 2011 season. At that point, Smith was getting all the great attention for his work on the field but actually getting a chance to talk to him was hard. He doesn’t like to talk to the media much and we had requested the interview time with the PR staff on numerous occasions. But when it finally came to be, he was very professional. It wasn’t a slight towards anyone in the media but that was just how Smith was.

During those years, there would be locker room availability and media members had a chance to observe players interact with one another in the locker room. Smith was well-liked by many players but he still liked to keep to himself. He was nicknamed “Cowboy” and I could imagine that he spends his free time with his boots on just building things and moving cattle around. He was a simple man that could dominate in the trenches. He was the perfect embodiment of what then head coach Jim Harbaugh expressed in a “blue collar” worker.

It sucks that he is leaning towards retirement himself, but it was something that was an ongoing thought for the past couple seasons. Now it looks like it’s here.

In my first game ever covering the 49ers, I remember the 49ers defeated the Seattle Seahawks at home. It was the team’s first home game of 2009 and the win would push the 49ers to 2-0 at the time. Gore ran for 207 yards on 16 carries that day and after the game was when I really got to see who Gore was.

Prior to that, I always thought Gore was one of the quiet guys on the team that didn’t display much emotion. Instead on that day, he was the opposite. He was happy after the game as he approached the podium. But of course, that was expected. But you could see the joy in his face because at that time, he assumed that the 49ers were finally going to be a winning team.

When asked about his ankle, which was injured, he started bouncing around on the floor showing that he was fine. Gore was not a man of many words, but when you got him in a good mood, he is a joy to be around. In the three years I covered him, he was still sometimes a hard person to get interview time with but he understood the importance of the Bay Area media and more often than not, he would make some kind of effort to help at least one or two reporters get a few quotes. When he did open up, he remained as one of the funniest players on the team.

With the news of Gore likely joining the Eagles, it saddens me to see one of the longest-tenured players will change jerseys. He wanted to stay with the 49ers I am sure but the situation with Philly was so much better. Gore wants to win a Super Bowl and at his age, the window is closing fast. He gave everything he could to the 49ers and was the rock of the team, despite many bad years. As you can see in the above video, I had a feeling that might be Gore’s last game and I made sure I captured one of his last moments of glory with the team.

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I left the 49ers coverage after the 2012 season so these are all memories that were from several years ago. But even in the time following my departure, these three remained the constant with the team. If you wanted to see three great team leaders, these were the guys you looked for. And it is a shame that despite all their talent and potential in the next year, they won’t be doing it together. There are a lot of changes on the horizon for the 49ers and losing three key guys like Willis, Smith and Gore is going to gut the 49ers deep.

But this is the nature of the game. Some things you can expect and some things you can’t. There is no holding onto anything except memories as the windows open and close at such a high frequency. But the 49ers were lucky to have all three of these guys on their team together for seven seasons. And in those seasons, the nature and identity of the team changed.

Now the team’s identity will change again and the 49ers will have to look towards new leaders in the fresh start. It won’t be the same now. What Willis, Smith and Gore did on and off the field will never be duplicated.

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