Going Against the Grain: How Chris Borland Chose A Challenging Life Off the Field

Chris Borland loves football. He enjoyed the visceral nature of the game and played it to the best of his ability. Everyone who knows him said that he was truly passionate about the game. At the end of the day, however, he decided that his life and well-being were more important to him. He did the research, assessed the risk and made his decision to walk off the field and out of the San Francisco 49ers.

It seems inconceivable to diehard fans and some players that he should simply walk away after a very successful first year. Most ‘kids’ just starting out don’t care if they get knocked around and they are willing to risk concussions and injury for the almighty dollar. Players who have retired, however, and some still playing the game admit that had they known the risks, they may have thought twice about accepting lucrative contracts to pretty much sacrifice themselves on the field.

In 2005, Bennet Omalu, a pathologist at the University of California Davis, described the brain damage common to football players as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) after an autopsy of NFL player Mike Webster. This devastating disease is pretty much caused by having your brain knocked about in your skull over and over again. Even the NFL-commissioned study this year determined that 1 in 3 players could be seriously brain-damaged. Some players are living with Lou Gehrig’s disease, other have committed suicide, and the brains of 76 out of 79 deceased players showed signs of chronic traumatic CTE. Borland wasn’t willing to take that chance with his life. “I don’t think even the top neurologists truly understand the risks, the connections,” he said. “That’s what I found out in my research, and it’s just too many unknowns for me and there were too many tragedies for me to be comfortable playing.”

There is that aura of excitement and the adrenaline rush of sports that fuels the athlete and keeps them going. “I love the visceral feeling of the violence of the game; I think everyone that plays at a high level is passionate about that,” he said in an interview with CBS. “However, I don’t think you shouldn’t be informed and you should have every opportunity to know all you can about the dangers of that feeling that you love and the sport that you’re passionate about.”

It is ironic that parents who shelter their children, use antibac soap and ensure that playground and schools are safe are the same parents who encourage their kids onto the field or mat to play football, wrestle or box without considering the risks. Young children need to know it can hurt to compete and not everyone is going to be the best at what they do. There is nothing wrong with safe competition and there is nothing wrong with following a dream if you know all the risk factors.

After Borland “had his bell rung” during a training camp, he got a wake-up call and did some deep thinking, deciding to investigate what could happen in the future, should he pursue his passion for football. “There’s a lot of vernacular in football about getting your bell rung or getting dinged, and it was one of those instances,” he told CBS. “The hit itself wasn’t cataclysmic. It just kind of changed the way I approached the game.” He made an educated decision, based upon his discoveries, and whether or not you agree with him, you can’t fault his personal choice. 

Borland doesn’t advocate that everyone should stop wrestling, extreme sports, prize fighting, playing professional sports or even just following their dreams. He suggests that people should know about the risks they face. He doesn’t regret his choice or the years spent pursuing his dream and he shared that he is paying back 3/4 of his signing bonus and just keeping what he earned. To him, it’s not about the money, it’s about his life.