Chris Borland chooses peace of mind

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How many of you could walk away from $50 million dollars? Could you walk away from $100 million dollars? Could you do so at the age of 24 knowing just how difficult jobs are to come by? Chris Borland can answer yes to each of these questions, which makes him unique in our culture. The fact he is choosing to do so after just one year in the NFL has sent shock waves through the league.

In case you have not heard of Chris Borland, he was a human tackling machine last year for the San Francisco 49ers in just his first year out of college. Borland claims he knew he was not long for the NFL before training camp ended last year. It had nothing to do with self-doubt. Borland was an all-American linebacker at the University of Wisconsin and despite his small frame, he was a coach’s dream because of the way he played the game with so much passion.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell telling everyone head injuries are down in the NFL. (Claudia Gestro)
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell telling everyone head injuries are down in the NFL.
(Claudia Gestro)

Chris Borland is also a very smart young man. He made a point of observing veteran players and retired players and listened carefully when they talked about all their aches and pains. He was shocked to see former players he grew up watching play the game shells of their former selves. He was well read about the issue of brain trauma and how it lead to the early suicides of former players Dave Dureson and Junior Seau — and he decided there were more important things in life to enjoy than football fame and fortune.

Borland wants to be able to play with his children using his actual joints, not artificial ones he needs before the age of forty. Most of all, he wants to enjoy a quality of life that does not include horrific bouts of depression, forgetfulness, reliance on pain medications, or violent outbursts; things he has read and heard too much about from former, and I suspect current, players.

Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, claims the league is safer today than it was five years ago. He cites the 25 percent drop off in concussions last year along with the battery of tests players must pass before being cleared to play again. He says each team averaged only three or four concussions last year. How he can say this with a straight face is one of life’s great mysteries.

Several NFL players have already claimed they do not report getting their “bell rung” because they know they will be pulled from games. In some cases, players say they fear losing their job so they play through the constant ringing in their ears, double vision, and throbbing headaches rather than report to the team doctor. It’s more likely teams average three or four unreported concussions per week than what Goodell claims they averaged all last year. There simply is not a way to make the game safer as long as there is a constant quest for bigger, faster, and more powerful players.

At 5-feet, 11-inches and 230 pounds, Chris Borland was undersized for an NFL inside linebacker. However, he is smart enough to know this and strong enough mentally to decide to walk away now and live a full life. Borland actually graduated from Wisconsin with a degree in History and intends to return to school to further his education. He found a way to take his football talent and use it to receive a free college education so he could become something other than a football player. Unfortunately, not enough college recruits do this and are forced to play a brutal sport for as long as they can because they know they have little else to fall back on when they retire or are cut.

Many players, both present and past, have commended Borland for his decision. Several retired players have said they wish they had made the same decision when they were Borland’s age. For them, hindsight is 20/20, but for Chris Borland, it is his perfect foresight that will allow him to live with a greater peace of mind while enjoying a quality of life few former professionals ever enjoy.

Perhaps in five or ten years, we will be asking, “Who was that guy who walked away from $50 million dollars?” Chris Borland will not care if you forget his name because Chris Borland will still be able to remember much more than just his name. He will remember he made a decision that allowed him a chance to live and enjoy a full life; one that includes a loving and supportive family, friends, a career, and his health – both physical and mental. How many others in the NFL today will be able to say the same?

My guess is, far more will wish they did what Chris Borland has decided to do.