SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The NFL is going through an evolution regarding the safety of its players. And while the league has enforced a number of rules to limit head injuries, 49ers linebacker Chris Borland isn't letting it get to that point.
Borland, 24, told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" Monday he is retiring from the NFL after one season due to the fear of the long-term affects of head trauma.
"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," Borland said in the report. "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."
Borland made an instant impact with the 49ers as a rookie in 2014 after being drafted in the third round, registering a team high 100 tackles in eight starts, filling in for All-Pro Patrick Willis, who retired last week citing constant pain in his feet.
Borland's presence on the 49ers eased the hit of Willis' retirement after the veteran missed half the season with an injury to his big toe. Borland quickly became one of league's top candidates for defensive rookie of the year honors, anchoring the middle of San Francisco's fifth-ranked defense while without Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Aldon Smith for various portions of the season.
Having played just one year in the NFL, Borland's sudden retirement will reverberate league wide, and likely spur other players fearing head trauma to follow suit. To this point, the fear of head trauma had not caused a marquee player to retire in his prime - Borland becomes the first. After his standout rookie season, Borland was viewed as a pillar in the 49ers defense for years to come with Willis stepping away from the league.
"I feel largely the same, as sharp as I've ever been, for me it's wanting to be proactive," Borland told ESPN. "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."
In Week 11's win against the New York Giants, Borland earned NFC defensive rookie of the week honors and became the first rookie linebacker in franchise history to have two interceptions in one game. A week earlier, Borland made a key fumble recovery in an overtime victory on the road against the New Orleans Saints that set up the game-winning field goal.
Borland told ESPN he believed he sustained a concussion during last summer's training camp when he sniffed out a running play up the middle. From then on, he said, he began to question how his football career would affect his life after the NFL. He even wrote a letter to his parents before the preseason finale against Houston saying he believed his professional career would be "brief."
It's been an historic offseason for the 49ers that started with the loss of head coach Jim Harbaugh and included the departure of Willis, all-time leading rusher Frank Gore and the pending retirement of All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Smith.
Borland was the 49ers' plan to replace Willis. But Borland told ESPN the flux of the offseason did not have anything to do with his decision to walk away. It was solely with his health in mind.
"It's an incredible organization, and they truly looked out for players' best interests," he said.
Willis was apart of the small group of NFL players that retired last week, including quarterback Jake Locker and outside linebacker Jason Worilds. Although those players were not believed to have the same promising future as Borland.
At Wisconsin, Borland finished sixth all-time in total tackles and was the Big 10's defensive player of the year as a senior in 2013. He told ESPN he plans on returning to school to potentially pursue a career in sports management.
The full report from "Outside the Lines" is available here.
Update 8:05 P.M.
49ers general manager Trent Baalke issued the following statement after the team made Borland's retirement official.
"While unexpected, we certainly respect Chris’ decision,” 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."