SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Over the course of about 40 emotional minutes Tuesday afternoon, Joe Staley said goodbye to the game he has loved since he was 5 years old.
Staley, the San Francisco 49ers’ stalwart offensive tackle for the past 13 seasons, announced his retirement on Saturday afternoon via a statement. But Tuesday offered Staley a chance to reflect on a career that included six Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl appearances and a spot on the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2010s.
The day brought mixed emotions as Staley discussed favorite memories, his health status and plans for the future. There even were some tears as he got emotional when thanking Bay Area media for the personal relationships he had developed in his time with the team.
Staley, 35, made it clear he didn’t want to retire but his body simply would no longer allow him to play, at least not if he wanted to have the quality of life he desired with his wife and two daughters.
“It’s a happy and sad day,” Staley said. “Obviously, I did not want to quit playing football. I still have a huge love for it. It’s going to be a weird transition going into retirement because it wasn’t a thing where I was like, ‘All right, this is going to be my last year, I’m going to be done.’ But it was just the right decision for me, so I think because of that, it was really hard for me … It’s what needed to happen. Football is what I know and what I loved since I was a little kid.”
In what should have been the most enjoyable moments of his career, Staley found himself as happy as he had ever been on the field and in the locker room as the Niners surged to a 13-3 season and an NFC championship in 2019.
For as much as Staley wanted to enjoy it, his body resisted at every turn. He suffered a broken fibula in Week 2 that required what Staley calls a “weird” rehab that “wasn’t very straightforward.” Upon his return in Week 10, Staley broke a finger, an injury that required surgery and kept him out until Week 14.
As that happened, Staley said he began dealing with back issues and a lingering neck pain that began to intensify. The neck injury got worse as the season went on, with Staley calling Super Bowl LIV the “culmination” of the pain he was suffering.
Soon after the season, Staley sought multiple medical opinions as he tried to determine the risks and what his future might be like after football if he continued to play. He kept the 49ers abreast of his plans.
Staley said as recently as a month ago he still was considering his options, hoping that perhaps something would turn for the better to allow him to play. Staley had a self-imposed deadline of last week’s NFL draft to let the team know his future so they could plan accordingly.
“It was really important for me to, like, make sure whatever the decision was that I was gonna make that I wasn’t screwing them over,” Staley said. “I knew the draft was kind of like the deadline for that for them and also for me just because I wanted them to know 100% what I was gonna do by then … It was really important to me that they were able to have a plan in place.”
The Niners did have a plan and traded a 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2021 third-round pick to the Washington Redskins for left tackle Trent Williams. Hours later, Staley announced his retirement and was flooded with support from fans, the organization, teammates, coaches and former teammates and coaches.
Staley said he was “blown away” by the response.
“That meant so much,” Staley said. “Playing for that franchise meant a ton for me, and it really meant a lot for them to show that appreciation.”
As he reflected on his career, Staley talked about his touchdown-springing downfield block to beat the New Orleans Saints in the 2011 divisional playoffs, a handful of less memorable pancake blocks in tandem with guard Mike Iupati and a meaningful spike after a Niners touchdown in a Week 17 win against Seattle that clinched the NFC West and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs this past season.
And though Staley admitted to being frustrated that he was unable to win the Lombardi Trophy, he said that’s not something that will define him.
“It sucks to not be able to win that,” Staley said of the Niners’ loss against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. “It wasn’t in the cards. I gave everything I had to the game of football and I definitely don’t leave my head hung in that respect. I did everything I could do, but it just didn’t happen for whatever reasons. It’s frustrating, but it’s not something that is going to torment me for the rest of my life.”
As for what’s next, Staley isn’t in any sort of rush to decide, though he already has been in some preliminary discussions about possibilities.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said Saturday that Staley would be welcome around the team in whatever capacity he chooses. Staley said that some media entities have touched base about options and he’s going to consider doing some private coaching for offensive linemen.
Any, or all, of those figure to be on the table for whenever Staley chooses to pursue them; he also acknowledged an interest in coaching. For now, though, he wants to take time to be with his family and figure it out later.
“Hopefully, I’ll be a lot lighter and in a lot better shape,” Staley said. “I’ll be healthier and just be the best family man, the best dad I can be and just working incredibly hard at whatever it is. As far as what I want to do when the game is done, I want to be involved in football in some capacity …
“I don’t have like a definitive plan. I’ve kind of gone through this whole thing and just take one year and just enjoy trying to be healthy and being around the house as much as I can. Then I’m sure I’ll go stir crazy around here and need to have something to do.”