BY Art Thiel 09:18PM 03/16/2015

49ers’ LB Borland, 24, quits; cites head trauma

A rising young star with the 49ers, Chris Borland retired Monday after studying the medical evidence about head trauma in football and decided the risk was not worth the reward.

Chris Borland, a former Wisconsin Badger, announced his retirement from the San Francisco 49ers. / Wiki Commons

In a stunning development sure to rock the NFL, LB Chris Borland, a third-round pick of the 49ers who blossomed into a big part of the team’s future in 2014, retired Monday because of his apprehension over the long-term consequences of repetitive head trauma.

Borland, 24, becomes the first player in his prime to publicly step away from the game specifically because of rapidly growing evidence of debilitation experienced by numerous retired players.

Borland said he notified the 49ers on Friday, and the club confirmed his decision. Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines that he made his decision after consulting with family members, concussion researchers, friends and current and former teammates, as well as studying what is known about the relationship between football and neurodegenerative disease.

Here is the rest of the ESPN story:

“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland said. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

Borland becomes the most prominent NFL player to leave the game in his prime because of concerns about brain injuries. More than 70 former players have been diagnosed with progressive neurological disease following their deaths, and numerous studies have shown connections between the repetitive head trauma associated with football, brain damage and issues such as depression and memory loss.

“I feel largely the same, as sharp as I’ve ever been. For me, it’s wanting to be proactive,” Borland said. “I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late . . . There are a lot of unknowns. I can’t claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”

The 49ers, in a statement, wished him the best.

“While unexpected, we certainly respect Chris’ decision,” team general manager Trent Baalke said. “From speaking with Chris, it was evident that he had put a great deal of thought into this decision. He was a consummate professional from day one and a very well respected member of our team and community. Chris is a determined young man that overcame long odds in his journey to the NFL and we are confident he will use the same approach to become very successful in his future endeavors. We will always consider him a 49er and wish him all the best.”

Borland was expected to be a key part of the 49ers defense this season, after the retirement of All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis last week. Borland replaced Willis, 30, after six games last season; Willis had sustained a toe injury.

Willis’s retirement had no role in his decision, Borland said.

Borland said there was no chance he would change his mind. The third-round draft pick, who starred at the University of Wisconsin, said he has had just two diagnosed concussions: one while playing soccer in the eighth grade, the other while playing football as a sophomore in high school.

Borland, who is listed at 5-foot-11, 248 pounds, earned accolades for his aggressiveness and instincts at inside linebacker. He had 107 tackles and a sack in 14 games, eight of them starts. He was the NFC’s defensive player of the week for his performance against the New York Giants in Week 11. He led the 49ers with 13 tackles in that game and became the team’s first rookie linebacker with two interceptions in one game. He received one vote for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

His success the past season did not make his decision more difficult, Borland said: “I’ve thought about what I could accomplish in football, but for me, personally, when you read about Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, you read all these stories, and to be the type of player I want to be in football, I think I’d have to take on some risks that, as a person, I don’t want to take on.”

Borland was referring to former NFL greats who were diagnosed with a devastating brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, after their deaths. Duerson and Easterling committed suicide.

Borland said he began to have misgivings during training camp. He said he sustained what he believed to be a concussion stuffing a running play but played through it, in part because he was trying to make the team.

“I just thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? Is this how I’m going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I’ve learned and knew about the dangers?’”

He said the issue “gathered steam” as the season progressed. Before the fourth game of the preseason, at Houston, he wrote a letter to his parents informing them that he thought his career in the NFL would be brief because of his concerns about the potential long-term effects of head injuries.

After the season, Borland said, he consulted with prominent concussion researchers and former players to affirm his decision. He also scheduled baseline tests to monitor his neurological well-being going forward “and contribute to the greater research.” After thinking through the potential repercussions, Borland said the decision was ultimately “simple.”

He said part of the reason he waited until now was because he wanted to inform his family and friends, including a few 49ers teammates. He also said he wanted time to contact the researchers and study the issue further.

Borland, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Wisconsin, said he plans to return to school and possibly pursue a career in sports management. He had a four-year contract with the 49ers worth just under $3 million, which included a signing bonus of $617,436.

The decision to retire had nothing to do with the 49ers, Borland said. He said his feelings toward the team and his teammates marked one of the hardest aspects of the decision.

“It’s an incredible organization, and they truly looked out for players’ best interests,” he said.

Borland is the fourth NFL player age 30 or younger to announce his retirement in the past week. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds, 27, said he retired “after much thought and consideration” to pursue “other interests.” Tennessee Titans and former University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker, 26, said he left the game because he no longer had “the burning desire necessary to play the game for a living.” Willis said he retired due to constant pain in his feet, among other reasons. He was placed on the season-ending injured reserve Nov. 11 after getting hurt Oct. 13.

Borland had a decorated career at Wisconsin, where he was named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year and linebacker of the year as a senior. He was a first-team All-American selection and recipient of multiple All-Big Ten honors.

Meanwhile, Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner tweeted that he did not share Borland’s concerns:

 


YourThoughts

  • Starsky & Hutchinson

    Concussion concerns went unsaid during Locker’s exit, but that had to be part of the private conversation. Think we’ll be seeing more of this, and who can blame them?

    • Art Thiel

      There is danger in a player’s frank admission of fear of TBI because it puts pressure on every other player to justify continuing his career to his family. Money usually trumps all. But not always.

  • Rick Goddard

    My son played rugby in high school and a couple years beyond. Contact in one of the games in his last year gave him a concussion. We all talked about it and a few games later, he ended his rugby activity for good. I’m so glad he made this choice. Life is hazardous enough without trying to help increase the odds of traumatic injury for the sake of sports.

    • Art Thiel

      The issue travels well beyond football. Girls’ soccer actually has more concussions per player/game than football.

  • Tian Biao

    This is a remarkable story, to walk away from the game like that, and for those reasons.
    Readers on lesser sports websites are already calling him names and questioning his manhood. but it’s just the opposite: this Borland sounds like a very mature and thoughtful young man. a lot more mature and thoughtful, now that i think about it, than the boy owner of the 49ers.

    • Art Thiel

      To the fans who care nothing about who’s inside the helmet, players are chattel. Borland set off an ooga horn, and many fans wish only to cover their ears.

  • Jamo57

    My son is roughly the same age as players playing professionally now (he’s 30) and I often look at these stories through the lens of what would I want him to do. While the decision would always be his, I would want him to always think in terms of his long term health and walk away with as much of it intact as possible. Good for Chris.

    • Art Thiel

      Parents usually know to think long term, but if you grow up in an environment that’s day to day, you do the immediate thing and ask questions later.

  • jafabian

    That’s refreshing to see a player walk away from a potential million dollar income. There ARE things more important than money. With respect to B-Swag, the game is not worth your life. I’ve read too many stories where it seems the longer you play football, the harder is is on you when you get older.

    • Art Thiel

      Hard to see that when you’re young. You remember that, don’t you, John?

  • notaboomer

    hats off to borland for making his reasons public. time to cancel football and its brain-damaging effect for all youth players. just say no, parents.

  • notaboomer

    sidney rice retired due to head injury history and concerns btw.

    • RadioGuy

      That’s right. I’d forgotten about that.
      Borland made the right call. If Roger and the Good Ole Boys really cared about the health of their players, there would be no such thing as Thursday Night Football involving any team four days removed from its last game. That the NFLPA went along with this tells me DeMaurice Smith is no better than Gene Upshaw (who REALLY should’ve known better) at looking out for his employers.

      No wonder Marshawn Lynch goes out of his way to poke a finger in the eye of NFL powers-that-be. As much money as the players make, they really are alone out there.

      • Art Thiel

        Good points, Radio. Lynch and most players understand that they are vulnerable to the league. But the union has never been effective in holding its ground.

  • 3 Lions

    Good for Borland. Certainly not an easy decision. The man spent a life time getting to that level & is walking a way. Ultimately, the game needs to be played in a cleaner manner. Head hunting is stupid. Moreover, why are guys playing w career threatening injuries & management is turning a blind eye? (31, 25…)