Borland’s retirement shines intensely

Chris Borland’s decision to walk away from the NFL after only one season shined the spotlight on this year’s trend of early retirements.

One-and-done is supposed be a debate topic for the NCAA basketball tournament at this time of year. It’s March Madness.

Chris Borland, however, shot that topic into NFL consciousness with his announcement Monday night on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that he is retiring.

Borland is 24 years old. He just finished his rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers. And he was one of the league’s best rookie defenders.

Now he’s done?

A player that oozed a love for the game has suddenly decided to divorce himself from his passion. And he revealed in his “Outside the Lines” interview that he considered retirement before his rookie season even began.

Why? Because Borland put his long-term mental fitness in front of his short-term fame and fortune.

“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,” he said.

The risk is a growing concern among NFL players, at least, if not the league itself, about the connection between repeated head trauma and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Former NFL greats Dave Duerson, Mike Webster and Ray Easterling were diagnosed with the disease after their deaths. It can only be detected in brains after death, and it’s a growing concern among retired players.

Duerson shot himself in the chest and left a note that he wanted his brain examined by science. Webster also struggled with effects of football for many years before his death.

“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 said.

Borland said he feels “as sharp as I’ve ever been,” but he wants to be proactive.

“I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late,” he said. “… 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.”

He was the NFC Defensive Player of the Month in November. He was the team’s leading tackler (with 109) at the end of the season.

Now, less than a year after he was drafted, Borland is done. It’s his choice, his way.

Retirement after one year in the NFL is Borland’s prerogative, but it was just the latest of several stunning retirements in the last month from players who are less than 30 years old.

Borland’s teammate in 2014, 49ers middle linebacker Patrick Willis, shocked the NFL world when he announced his retirement. Quarterback Jake Locker, a 2011 first-round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans, also called it quits at the outset of free agency at only 26 years old. He cited a lack of desire for the commitment required of NFL players.

“Football has always played a pivotal role in my life and I love the game, but I no longer have the burning desire necessary to play the game for a living,” he said. “To continue to do so would be unfair to the next organization with whom I would eventually sign. I realize this decision is surprising to many, but I know in my heart that it is the right decision and I look forward to spending more time with my family and pursuing other interests.”

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds, who turned 27 before the start of free agency and was one of the top-ranked outside linebacker expected to hit the open market, also retired. He likely surrendered an eight-figure contract in saying goodbye to the NFL.

Running back Maurice Jones-Drew retired at age 29 before the start of this year’s free agency. In nine seasons, he had rushed for more than 8,167 yards and carried the ball 1,847 times. Starting only one game for the Oakland Raiders last year, his retirement wasn’t a complete shock.

But while all of those retirements were a surprise to some degree, none stood out more than Borland, who was set to become a more prominent player with Willis gone, and whose one-and-done shined an even brighter focus on early retirements in the NFL.

Just 13 months ago, Borland was answers questions at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine and touting his toughness.

“Football’s extremely important to me, it’s my passion. I put everything into it,” he said then. “I feel like I'm the toughest guy here (at the combine), or at least one of them. We’ve got a lot of tough guys here at the combine, but I’ve played through things, no complaint, practice hard, all the right things. Probably the way I grew up.”

A year later, he changed his mind, possibly to save his mind long-term. Further investigation into the risks shaped his decision.

Is it a trend? Are more young players worried about the effects of concussions?

Numerous players from the 1960s and ‘70s who are suffering physical or mental effects from their playing days say they would do it all over again, even knowing the risks they didn’t understand then. But Borland’s announcement, especially with him citing his research, brings more awareness to the risks that the modern-day player faces.

Most choose the lifestyle knowing the possible effects. Countless players have returned from concussions and played in the next week or two, some of them suffering more head or brain trauma. Borland simply chose otherwise and only time will tell if his very public decision becomes a trend.

Meanwhile, the NFL will play on.

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