But no one could have predicted what would come next.
In a new lawsuit, Willis alleges a tale of fraud, paranoia, and erratic behavior that likely far surpasses anything he experienced on the professional football field. The charges in the complaint, filed October 26 in Santa Clara County Superior Court, seem unusual even for Silicon Valley -- a place that prides itself on doing things differently than the rest of the business world.
Willis claims his business partner, Eren Niazi, founder of Open Source Storage in Campbell, California, committed fraud "so that he could enrich himself at [Willis's] expense," according to documents. As widely reported in the press, the unlikely duo -- Niazi looks more like a typical, bespectacled tech executive -- joined forces around the time Willis walked away from professional football at the top of his game. A month after retirement, the muscular, strapping athlete became an owner and board member of Open Source Storage, as well as its executive vice president for partnerships.
But Willis is now seeking full ownership of at least $2 million in disputed real estate as well as unspecified monetary damages from Niazi, whom he also accuses of breach of fiduciary duty. "As a proximate result of Niazi's fraud, [Willis] lost substantial sums through unsuitable and imprudent investments," reads the lawsuit, filed by attorneys representing Willis, who is widely considered to be a future Hall of Fame inductee and one of the best players of his generation.
As for Niazi, the tech executive appears to have more problems than a legal dispute with Willis. The lawsuit comes about one month after he was arrested in Hollister, California, on what seem to be unrelated criminal charges. He is currently being held without bail at the San Benito County Jail, and he has been charged with use of a firearm, discharging a firearm, and endangering a child, a correctional deputy at the jail said. Numerous attempts to reach out to Niazi, and anyone representing him, for comment for this story were unsuccessful.
Operations at Open Source Storage, meanwhile, appear to be coming to a halt. The company's website was taken offline in late October after this reporter began contacting company employees, and calls to the phone number listed for the business went unanswered.
Open Source Storage's LinkedIn bio describes the company as a provider of data-storage systems. Its website also listed a cadre of client logos, including those of companies like Facebook, AOL, Sony, and Ebay. Facebook and Ebay have denied ever doing business with Open Source Storage; the other companies didn't immediately return requests for comment.
Offline, there does not appear to be much of a business left. The company's office is located in an unremarkable building in Campbell, California, that also houses other Silicon Valley companies. At the front of its suite, visitors are greeted by a bright green wall with a sign in the middle that announces "Open Source Storage" in silver, capitalized letters. However, there is little activity to be found there.
When this reporter visited on October 31, there were vacant cubicles, empty conference rooms, desk chairs wrapped in plastic, phones piled together, and boxes stacked and sitting in the darkness of the unlit working area. There was one woman in the office. Asked where everyone was, she replied, "Some people work from home." Asked if Open Source Storage was dissolving, the woman told me to leave.
An Unlikely Partnership
Niazi and Willis "met sometime in the fall of 2014," the lawsuit says. Their meeting was "a chance encounter," according to a report in May by Mashable that went viral among tech and NFL fans alike. It was an origin story fit for Hollywood.
The two happened to live in the same neighborhood in Silicon Valley, Mashable said. Willis was recovering from surgery, struggling to move some bags, when Niazi offered to help.
"Usually when people walk up to me, they kind of already know who I am and have some motive," Willis told Mashable. "But he just insisted like, 'Let me help you with that.' Then he just took off. I thought it was cool."
That meeting led to a relationship between the two that developed during what would ultimately be Willis's final season in the NFL.
Throughout his career, Willis was one of the top players in football. Following his final year at Ole Miss, Willis was selected 11th overall in the 2007 NFL draft by the 49ers, bringing the Tennessee native to the tech capital of the world. During his eight-year NFL career, Willis was named Defensive Rookie of the Year, selected for seven Pro Bowls, accumulated 950 tackles, and helped lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl XLVII appearance. He earned an estimated $42.5 million in his playing career, according to Spotrac. At one point, he was reportedly the highest paid player at his position in history.
Niazi, however, "had no idea who Willis was" because he was not a sports fan, Mashable said. In his own right, Niazi was also a success, according to Mashable. Or at least he was in the press.
Niazi grew up in Sunnyvale, California, and like other tech entrepreneurs, he was a high school dropout who began coding as a child, according to Mashable and The Street, which in 2014 ran a story titled "Apple's Steve Jobs Would See Himself in Tech Pioneer Eren Niazi."
That's because in 2001, Niazi founded Open Source Storage and brought in a who's who of customers, including Friendster, NASA, and Facebook, The Street said. Nonetheless, the company filed for bankruptcy protection and Niazi was forced out, but, like Jobs, he was able to retake the reins of his company, The Street said. He relaunched the firm in late 2013. It "fetched $5.5 billion in revenue" with "a valuation of $95 million," The Street said.
Niazi and Willis were each impressed with the other's successes, the Mashable report reads. After just a few months of knowing each other, Willis left football and went to work with Niazi. "I think my proudest accomplishment is being here," Willis said of Open Source Storage, according to a September report by CNBC.
More Claims of Fraud
Perception, however, is not always reality.
Willis is now alleging that Niazi is not the successful businessman he claimed to be and purposefully misled the retired NFL player into making some bad business deals.
"Niazi induced [Willis] into investing his money with him," the lawsuit reads. "He represented in conversations that [Willis's] money would be prudently invested for safekeeping and growth. In fact those representations were knowingly false, and were intended to induce [Willis] to invest his money through Defendant Niazi. Niazi exercised discretionary control over those funds without [Willis's] knowledge or consent."
Beyond Open Source Storage, Willis and Niazi entered into a variety of other business deals, the document says. Niazi talked Willis into "investing in the publicly-traded equity markets and in real estate, selling [Willis] on the wisdom and safety of those investments," the document says.
Niazi told Willis "it was necessary and desirable to set up a joint account ... which would be funded in equal parts by both" men, according to the suit. Niazi also told Willis that they needed to form a number of businesses for legal and tax reasons, the suit says. These businesses are called EP11, EP13, and EP18.
All three, as well as Open Source Storage, are registered in Nevada as limited liability companies and are listed as active businesses, according to the Nevada Secretary of State website. There is also an "EP1618" in Nevada that is registered to Niazi. All of the EP businesses have the same San Jose address, which is in a shopping center. "Niazi caused all mail for the EP entities, for banking accounts, and investment accounts to go to a postal box that he alone checked," the lawsuit reads.
Throughout this time, Niazi kept Willis in the dark about the success of their investments and of Open Source Storage, explaining things to the former NFLer "in vague and general terms" while making "unilateral decisions" about their investments, the lawsuit claims. But while the two were supposed to be equal partners, Willis eventually learned that only he had kept up his end of the deal, the document reads. Willis was under the impression that he and Niazi had contributed equal amounts of money to their investments, but Niazi never made "his promised contribution," the lawsuit states.
A Guilty Conscience?
Aside from Niazi, Willis's lawsuit lists EP13 as a defendant. Niazi is alleged to have used EP13 to purchase three residential properties in Morgan Hill, California. They are collectively worth more than $2 million, according to the Santa Clara County Office of the Assessor's website. The two men are equal partners in the company, but only Willis's money was used to make the purchases, the lawsuit claims.
"Niazi actively concealed his fraud and breaches of confidence ... by purposefully keeping [Willis] in the dark about the use of his money," the lawsuit reads. "He also committed and concealed his fraud by forging [Willis's] signature on numerous documents."
Willis became suspicious of Niazi in October as the tech founder "became increasingly erratic and paranoid, talking of unspecified government agents 'coming to get him,'" the lawsuit says. At one point in October, Niazi made "an unhinged phone call" to Willis, saying, "'They think I stole your money!'" the lawsuit alleges. Niazi had been arrested on September 29, and he has been in jail since then, the correctional deputy at the jail said.
"This made [Willis] suspicious that Niazi's paranoia was the sign of mental illness or a guilty conscience, and he began investigating Niazi and their financial dealings together," the court documents show. "He discovered that he alone had likely financed the purchases of the properties at issue, but that this fact is not accurately reflected in the legal titles on those properties."
The lawsuit does not disclose just how much money Willis entrusted to Niazi. The documents simply say that Willis "lost substantial sums ... in an amount to be proven at trial."
A trial date for the case has not been set.* Willis's attorney, Andrew August, said his firm, Browne George Ross, has hired forensic accountants to help trace the money. He believes the damages sought at trial will be "a very significant amount." He adds: "It's like any other investigation. It takes time."
Open Source Storage, meanwhile, is in the process of dissolving, says one person who is familiar with the company's dealings but has requested that his identity not be disclosed. The person says Open Source Storage did not have any customers. This reporter reached out to many of the company's employees and ex-employees, but none of them chose to comment.
Marc Rotzow, Open Source Storage's vice president of engineering, declined to comment when reached by phone in late October, directing this reporter to send queries to White Summers Caffee & James, the company's lawyers. A few days later, Rotzow was spotted by this reporter wearing a suit and bright red Converse sneakers while walking out of Open Source Storage's offices carrying a box of documents covered by a coat. Once again, Rotzow declined comment.
White Summers Caffee & James did not respond to multiple requests for comment. On November 3, William Caffee answered a phone call but immediately hung up after an Inc. reporter identified himself.
As for Willis, it's unclear what comes next. He had been scheduled to do an interview with this reporter on October 6, but he canceled it on that day. Recently, Willis removed the Open Source Storage portion of his LinkedIn profile and replaced it with "stealth startup." His listing as "Defensive Captain" for the San Francisco 49ers remains unchanged.
Correction: A previous version of this story said the trial date in the case between Willis and Niazi had been set for Feb. 21, 2017. The article has been updated to reflect that a trial date has not yet been set.