Chris Borland had at least five more lucrative years in him, maybe more. This was going to be his peak earning period. But he decided the rest of his life was worth more.
Borland, a San Francisco 49ers linebacker, just finished a productive rookie year, and was set to take on a bigger role with the team after fellow linebacker Patrick Willis, 30, announced his retirement last week. Willis, bothered by foot injuries, surprised many by leaving the game in his prime. But at least he had a prime. Borland, 24, is also retiring, sacrificing millions to preserve his brain.
It’s a newsworthy decision, but not all that shocking, given the rationale behind it. The brain science becomes more daunting year-by-year: by playing NFL football, you’re risking the quality of your life. A Borland was going to come along at some point: a promising player quitting, before he really gets started.
Is this a bit of a nightmare for the NFL? Sure. The league keeps losing PR battles; Borland’s retirement condemns the game. Yes, four NFL players age 30 or younger have retired during the past week. But don’t expect a flood of players to hand in their helmets. A decade ago, we weren’t even talking about the long-term dangers of concussions. A decade later, a young player staves off the damage. A decade from now? There will be other Borlands. Enough to cripple the league? Doubtful. Many, many decades from now? That’s another story. Fewer young kids are playing tackle football. The trends aren’t good.
Borland, who according to ESPN Stats & Information led the NFL in tackles from Weeks 7-15, when he filled in for Willis as a starter, did the research. He thought he sustained a concussion in training camp, but played through it, because he felt like that’s what he’d have to do to make the team. He called on concussion researchers to get the facts. Borland’s retired, but let’s see if he actually stays on the sidelines. At 24, he can always change his mind. If he follows through on his plan to go back to school and chase a career in sports management, and has a happy, successful life without football … Chris Borland might be the model NFL player, after playing a single season in the NFL.