Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - San Francisco 49ers star linebacker Chris Borland sent shock waves through the football world Monday night, announcing his retirement from the game at the tender age of 24.
Borland told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" he was worried about the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma, an issue that's been raised in recent years as studies have linked the sport with neurodegenerative diseases like Chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.
"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," Borland told ESPN. "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."
The 2014 third-round draft pick, who was scheduled to make $540,000 this season, notified the 49ers on Friday that he was calling it quits and San Francisco confirmed the news late Monday night.
"While unexpected, we certainly respect Chris' decision," said 49ers general manager Trent Baalke. "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."
"We respect Chris Borland's decision and wish him all the best," NFL senior vice president of health and safety policy Jeff Miller added. "Playing any sport is a personal decision."
At 5-foot-10, Borland was always too short and too slow for the NFL, except for the fact he could flat-out play. He was an instinctive, tackling machine during his rookie season, amassing 108 stops, one sack and two interceptions in 14 games before being placed on season-ending injured reserve in December with an ankle injury.
With Patrick Willis calling it a career at 30 earlier this month, citing his painful feet and an inability to play at a Pro Bowl level any longer, and the uncertainty over NaVorro Bowman, who is still attempting to return from a gruesome leg injury suffered in the NFC Championship Game after the 2013 season, Borland was the future for the 49ers on the inside of their defense.
And as good as $540,000 might look to the average 24-year-old, Borland was in line for a massive pay day on his second contract if he continued to play at the level his showed in 2014.
Despite that potential windfall and the fact Borland has never been diagnosed with a concussion at the college or professional level, he told ESPN he wanted to be "proactive" despite feeling "as sharp as I've ever been."
Credit Borland for his maturity and wisdom because most twentysomethings don't process information that way.
"It's extremely difficult when you're living your dream of playing in the NFL as a 20-something to contemplate what life could be like at 50," former wide receiver Donte Stallworth tweeted in reaction to Borland's announcement.
Others had a different take.
"No offense to anyone, but I'm playing until I can't anymore," Seattle Seahawks star linebacker Bobby Wagner wrote on Twitter. "I love this game to much."
The reality is Borland's position and style of play almost guaranteed future concussions and the Ohio native confirmed he had already been diagnosed with two to date.
For the activists champing at the bit to jump on the NFL, though, understand Borland was first concussed in eighth grade while playing soccer and then while playing football at Kettering Alterin High School in Ohio. He has had a clean bill of heath at least from a neurological sense at Wisconsin and with the 49ers.
Yet, because Borland immediately becomes the most prominent player to walk away from the game early over concerns regarding CTE, those with agendas will be attempting to use his personal decision as a launching pad for their own motives.
It's very fair to point out the NFL's policies almost always favored public relations over its players until very recently, but things have gotten better, at least according to noted-concussion expert Christopher Nowinski.
"NFL medical leaders have said that it was the meticulous research of Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the neuropathology laboratory for the New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers, which linked Lou Gehrig's death to concussions, that opened their eyes to the depth of the problem, and having been in those meetings. I think that changed their minds about the risks of brain trauma," Nowinski said in a previous interview with The Sports Network.
Nowinski, a former World Wrestling Entertainment performer and Harvard football player with a long history of concussions, along with Dr. Robert Cantu, went on to found the Massachusetts-based Sports Legacy Institute.
Post-mortem analysis of the brain tissue by the SLI of former contact sports athletes has revealed that repetitive brain injuries, both concussions and non-concussive blows, could lead to CTE.
Nowinski himself was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome in June 2003 after getting his bell rung during a WWE match in Hartford, Connecticut. He performed for three more weeks before his symptoms became worse and he was forced to take an extended leave of absence before finally calling it quits when things hadn't cleared up a year later.
Nowinski began studying the suicide of Andre Waters, the former Philadelphia Eagles star who shot himself at age 44 in 2006, and also played an integral role in the discovery of CTE in former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk, who was killed in a car crash in 2004 at 36 after a 37-mile police chase at speeds up to 100 miles per hour.
His work helped alert an asleep-at-the-wheel media to the problems going on in the NFL as well as the NHL, professional wrestling, mixed martial arts and boxing.
Fearing a backlash, the NFL has slowly implemented a much tougher policy regarding diagnosed concussions, including an examination by an independent physician not involved in any way with the team of the affected player.
Problems still exist, but Nowinski has called the current NFL policies "strong."
"By any measure, football has never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players," the NFL VP said.
"Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three- year downward trend," Miller continued. "We continue to make significant investments in independent research to advance the science and understanding of these issues. We are seeing a growing culture of safety. Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do and player safety will continue to be our top priority."
That wasn't enough for Borland, though, who pointed to the suicides of Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, ex-players who were diagnosed with CTE after dying.
"I'm concerned that if you wait 'til you have symptoms, it's too late." Borland continued. "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."
Despite Miller's assertions, there is really only one way to take concussions out of the game of football and any other sport for that matter -- stop playing them.
Only Borland knows what's right for him and he's made his decision. Taking his choice a step further, though, and assuming it's the right one for everyone else is far from science, it's an ideology.
Common sense says head injuries are part of a cocktail that has been created by the NFL lifestyle, and blaming concussions for every single NFL-related tragedy is not only unfair, it's specious and convenient.
Some who have committed suicide over the years were battling with depression, money issues, drug dependencies and alcoholism but their survivors have been sold a bill of goods, an improvable thesis that CTE and only CTE is responsible for their loved one's demise.
Others who are still with us and suffering are being used in a similar fashion, ignoring other peccadilloes in an ends-justify-the-means mentality designed to hurt the sport.
Dogma is never science, whether you agree with it or not.
We all want an answer to life's problems and the black and white one will do for most in a society far too easily distracted to seek out a much more layered truth.
Football can be a brutal, savage game but everyone should have the right to play it if they choose. And for every Duerson or Waters there are hundreds of success stories who lead productive, and often charmed lives because of the game.
Those taking shots at Borland or calling him a quitter in an effort to protect the NFL are fools but those propping up the 24-year-old retiree as some kind of eidolon in order to undermine the sport are just as irrational.
Borland is neither a hero nor a pariah, he's just a young man who decided his personal risk is not worth his potential reward.
Let's leave it at that.