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San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis will retire

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 3/10/2015 USAToday

The stellar career of Patrick Willis, the thumping heartbeat of the San Francisco 49ers defense, is coming to an end. The six-time all-pro will officially announce his retirement, a development the team confirmed Tuesday morning.

"On behalf of the entire San Francisco 49ers organization, my family, and our Faithful fans, I would like to thank Patrick for everything he has brought to this team and our community," said team CEO Jed York in a statement. "Some of the greatest memories in the history of our franchise have come from his passion, dedication and sacrifice.

Kelley L Cox, USA TODAY Sports © Kelley L Cox, USA TODAY Sports Kelley L Cox, USA TODAY Sports

"Patrick epitomizes everything you could ever want in a San Francisco 49er. What he brought to this team goes much further than his athletic abilities. His leadership and infectious love for the game helped propel this team. I consider myself very lucky to have grown up around some of the greatest players in the history of this franchise, and Patrick has certainly secured his place among that elite group of men. As a member of our family, Patrick holds a special place in our hearts, and we look forward to supporting him as he moves on from his playing career."

It's another blow to the leadership of the 49ers. They have been rocked by the departures of head coach Jim Harbaugh to coach Michigan, franchise rushing leader Frank Gore, who is about to hit free agency, and the expected retirement of defensive end Justin Smith.

Willis played in just six games last year before aggravating a nagging big left toe injury Oct. 13 against the St. Louis Rams.

The 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft, Willis rang up 135 tackles that season becoming the first 49ers rookie since Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott in 1981 to earn Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors.

Willis has 792 tackles, 20 ½ sacks, nine interceptions and 16 forced fumbles for his career.

He was scheduled to earn roughly $7 million this season. If he does retire as expected, the 49ers would gain $7.4 million in salary-cap relief.

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Follow Jim Corbett on Twitter at @ByJimCorbett

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