Chris Borland was a kamikaze linebacker, a fire-breathing rookie on the ferocious 49ers defense. He got his first start in Week 7 last October against the Denver Broncos, and two weeks later he was living up to the scouting reports that dubbed him a "tackling machine" coming out of Wisconsin. He recorded 48 take-downs during a three-week stretch in November and Borland looked like a third-round steal for San Francisco.
It didn’t matter. Borland, who was destined to be the hardworking heartbeat of the menacing unit, was more concerned about what his life might be like on the other side of a pro football career. He read the stories of the thousands of players who are suing the NFL because of the litany of health problems they've suffered from the game, and he didn't want to be one of them. He has other plans for himself. He told his parents his NFL career was going to be short.
So at 24 years old, Borland retired from the league Monday evening, adding his name to another growing list: players who are walking away from the game on their own terms, with their brains and knees and shoulders and spines in one piece. With their wits intact.
"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?'" Borland told ESPN. In the money quote, Borland said he didn't think football was "worth the risk."
Since the season ended in early February, young players like Borland, teammate Patrick Willis (30), Maurice Jones-Drew (29), Jason Worilds (27), and Jake Locker (26) all walked away from the NFL on their own terms. Worilds, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, said he was leaving football to pursue other interests, marking a growing trend among players who have an eye on what their lives might be like after years of head-banging rather than just living in the moment.
For others though, the decision to retire is made for them by a series of awful injuries that have left too many other former players essentially crippled, confused, and broke. Last summer, Giants running back David Wilson was forced to retire at 22 because of chronic neck injuries. "These are tears of joy," he said in announcing his decision. "Don't for a second do you all think that I'm pitying myself or sad because I got to live my dream. I'll set another dream and be great at that because I always look at trying to be great at whatever I do."
In February, the NFL suspended a concussion study that used helmet sensors to track head hits, abandoning important research that was going to be used to analyze threats to player safety. But while this science is more complex than just one study, you don't need a spreadsheet to know that football is a dangerous game that's left far too many players broken and headed for an early retirement.
Jahvid Best, the former Lions RB, was forced from the game because of concussions. He is now suing the NFL and helmet manufacturer Riddell because of those head injuries.
From offensive formations to pass-heavy gameplans to expanding coaching staffs, the NFL is a trend-heavy, copycat league where fads come and go — remember the Wildcat? — faster than the 40-yard-dash times of guys who are now built like SUVs. As more research points to the dangers of playing in the NFL, will more players have the foresight that Borland and others have shown? Will early retirement and a robust life after football become the norm?
The NFL just isn't for some guys. Pat Tillman famously walked away from the NFL to become an Army Ranger following the 9/11 attacks, and was later killed in action. John Moffitt left $1 million on the table when he walked away at 29 because, "I just really thought about it and decided I'm not happy. I'm not happy at all," he told The Associated Press. "I just want to be happy." Last year, Arizona running back Rashard Mendenhall, who was set to receive a huge bounty as a free agent, hung up his spikes because he wanted to live life outside the spotlight.
Whenever one of these gladiators decides the NFL isn't so awesome, that they would rather not deal with the collisions or the fame or the headaches or the potentially debilitating injuries that are now as much a part of the game as helmets and facemasks, it's big news.
But as the game gets more and more brutal, as the hits get bigger and the injury list grows, it's likely that we're going to see more players like Borland take a long hard look at what they're doing, what the payoff is, and how being an NFL player stacks up against things like being able to walk and talk later in life.
Some might say his priorities are out of whack. Who wouldn’t want to be an NFL player? Well, more and more NFL players apparently don’t. And they’ll be the first to tell you that the lucky ones are able to make that decision for themselves.