After leaving San Francisco 49ers after one season to protect his health, Chris Borland isn't looking back
This time of the NFL offseason features loads of potential-based excitement.
Free agent signings and returning players have started reporting to team headquarters for the start of workouts. The regular-season schedule just came out. The top college prospects will hear their names called during next week’s NFL draft.
But all of that — the renewed routines, the energy and buzz — feels almost foreign now for Chris Borland. Distant memories, and nothing more.
Three years have passed since San Francisco’s 2014 third-round pick retired months after the inside linebacker garnered all-rookie honors for recording 107 tackles, a sack, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Concerns about brain injuries after extensive self-conducted research on the topic drove Borland away from the game. He had already sustained two diagnosed concussions during his career — once in eighth grade when he was knocked unconscious and again in 10th grade when he got up, but was pulled from the game after staggering in the wrong direction. However, Borland says he suffered 13 other concussions that he chose not to report. However, after learning of dangers of brain injuries and how he could suffer from them later in life, he'd had enough.
The decision to retire came without a twinge of doubt or regret, Borland told USA TODAY Sports. But that doesn’t mean finding a sense of purpose after football came easily.
“At times, I would oscillate between feeling trapped and feeling aimless,” Borland recalled. “I really, at times, wanted to avoid this issue. There’s a degree of irony. I quit not to deal with CTE and at least intellectually deal with it as much as anyone, and I laugh at that irony sometimes, and that stress. But on the other hand, I had opportunities walking away, but didn’t know what I wanted to do. … Ultimately, I’m very fortunate to have my health and different opportunities and I’ve settled into a place and I’ve embraced the role.”
That role involves Borland’s work with After The Impact Fund, a non-profit organization that helps treat both former NFL players and military veterans, who suffer from traumatic injuries. ATIF helps players and veterans transition to every-day lives while lending assistance in the area of physical, psychological and relational healing while giving the men and women a renewed sense of purpose.
These efforts appealed to Borland thanks largely to the aimlessness he experienced immediately after retiring at the age of 25.
From talking to his brothers, Joe Borland (a captain and U.S. Army JAG Corps) and John Borland (a major in the Army and instructor at West Point), Borland learned of the struggles that service members also encounter as they transition back to civilian life.
Eventually, those paths intersected for Borland when his involvement with Gridiron Greats (another organization that assists retired football players), led him to After The Impact Fund.
“They pair military veterans with NFL retirees as their approach to getting people the services they need,” Borland explained. “I think its two distinct populations that share a lot of the same issues, whether it be neurologically or re-assimilating into society. Like veterans, we’re used to being part of a unit, having a single purpose, and experiencing a certain intensity of lifestyle. It’s not easy to then be cast into this world where it’s strip malls and Snapchat stories about the Kardashians and the like, and it’s much the same with football players.”
The Borland brothers are teaming up this weekend to raise funds for After the Impact Fund while taking part in an event that also intersects the NFL with the military, racing in the Pat Tillman Foundation’s Pat’s Run in Tempe, Ariz. (Tillman was the Arizona Cardinals safety, who after the September 11 attacks quit football to enlist in the Army and was killed in action in April 2004 while serving with the 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan).
Meeting the needs of former players, particularly those suffering from the effects of brain injuries, represents Borland’s passion. But he often finds himself lending assistants to current players. He estimates that on average of once a week, a current NFL player will contact him seeking additional insight on brain injuries and his decision to retire.
“I try not to tell anybody what to do, but just share my journey and point them in the direction of where I feel really good research is going on,” Borland said.
Borland currently doesn’t regret having played football. He considers himself blessed to have enjoyed the game in college, and to have reached the NFL. He admits that if he does wind up suffering from dementia and other brain injury related illnesses, he’ll then regret not having played another sport instead.
Borland doesn’t follow the NFL closely anymore, but he keeps up to date on the latest research that the league’s committees produce, and the rule changes or safety measures that are put in place. The NFL has instituted stiffer penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits, and this week officials outlawed 10 helmet models that testing has deemed ineffective in protecting the brain.
But none of those efforts give the former linebacker a sense of comfort.
“I don’t think you can look to the people that have caused the problem to solve it,” Borland said. “I understand and empathize with folks at the league, but they’re not in the health industry. They’re in the violence industry. They’ll make it incrementally safer for PR and will fund studies for the same reason, but ultimately, their bread is buttered by watching players collide and the violence of the game. That’s what’s captivating so, it’s against their interest to really solve it. And I don’t think they’re doing enough and that it’ll every be enough.”
But what is an effective solution?
“Objective research,” Borland says and then praises the work of the Concussion Legacy Foundation before adding, “It’s going to take the instituting of rules at every level. It’s not just a pro football level. It’s reform on (youth, high school and college levels), legislation; all hands on deck, because millions and millions will play, and we’re learning more and more about repetitive brain injuries. But no, I don’t think the NFL will ever be a leader in this.”
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