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Newsday (New York)

 

Chris Borland doesn't look back with regret at his decision, even if there are times he still misses playing football.

The former 49ers linebacker retired at age 24 after just one season in the NFL because of concerns about head trauma, but he'd make the same decision — even with the benefit of hindsight.

"Anybody who's played at a high level — high school, college or the pros — likes to reminisce," Borland told Newsday in a telephone interview Tuesday. "I seized the opportunity when it was there, but I don't look back wistfully. I've got an uncle who's a very wise man who said, 'It's OK to look back. Just don't stare.' "

He isn't staring.

Borland, 27, has become involved in several interesting ventures, including a recently formed business incorporating meditation into athletics. He also has partnered with the "After the Impact Fund" that arranges custom treatment plans for military veterans and former NFL players suffering from traumatic injuries. He will join his two brothers who are in the military — Capt. Joe Borland and Major John Borland — at Saturday's Pat's Run, an event in Phoenix organized by the Pat Tillman Foundation.

"Pat Tillman is a hero of mine," Borland said of the former Cardinals safety who enlisted in the Army after the 2001 terrorist attacks and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. "The two populations have similar struggles, similar approaches to life. My brothers and I are eager to raise funds and raise awareness."

Borland is also keen on continuing to raise awareness about the risks associated with playing football, expressing skepticism that the NFL is truly interested in — or even capable of — addressing the sport's inherent dangers.

"The NFL talks out of both sides of their mouth," he said. "If they were serious about it, they'd take care of former players and look holistically at the problem."

League owners recently approved a significant rules change that makes it illegal for any player to lower his helmet to initiate contact, an acknowledgment of the need to decrease helmet-to-helmet hits. But while Borland commends the effort to take the head out of the game, he believes it's impossible to do so for almost every player on the field.

"The reality is that it's just the nature of the game," Borland said. "It's the nature of playing offensive line, defensive line and linebackers, where your responsibilities as a player involve those little hits that are going to accumulate. You can't take that out of the game. I do think is more window dressing than anything."

It's those common collisions on virtually every play that often lead to what are called "sub-concussive" hits that, accumulated over time, eventually can lead to the degenerative neurological condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It has been diagnosed in more than 100 deceased former NFL players.

Borland, who suffered diagnosed concussions playing soccer in eighth grade and football in college at Wisconsin, said he incurred countless sub-concussive hits. Even so, he said he is "doing well" health-wise.

"I don't have anything dramatic going on," he said. "I've got your typical ailments for a guy that made 500-plus tackles in six years. No surgeries on the horizon."

Borland does believe there are encouraging signs about increased awareness at the youth level. He joins a growing chorus of experts on brain trauma, as well as former players, who believe tackle football shouldn't be played before high school. Borland didn't play until high school, which he once believed might hurt his NFL career.

"I can remember meeting with Jim Harbaugh at the scouting combine , and he asked what sports I played growing up," Borland said. "My dad made all of his sons wait to play tackle football, so I told I played soccer, basketball, baseball, tennis, really everything under the sun."

Borland figured Harbaugh wouldn't have any interest after hearing the linebacker didn't play high school football.

"I was concerned he thought it was a bad sign," Borland said.

Harbaugh's reaction stunned him.

"Every American boy should play soccer through the eighth grade," Harbaugh told him.

"If Jim Harbaugh is OK to let kids wait until high school — and there's no one who loves football more than he does — then it shows there's plenty of time to learn how to play the right way, beginning in ninth grade."

Harbaugh made Borland the 49ers' third-round pick in 2014. It turned out to be the only year they remained together. After the season, Borland retired and Harbaugh took the Michigan job.

Borland had an excellent rookie season, and eventually took over for the injured Patrick Willis at middle linebacker. He had a superb game in a 16-10 win over the Giants, making 13 tackles and intercepting two Eli Manning passes, including one at the 49ers' 2-yard line with 4:43 to play.

"It was a hell of a game," Borland said. "It was an ugly, old-school defensive struggle. I loved playing in the Big Ten, where it's three yards and a cloud of dust."

A week earlier, the 49ers beat the Saints, 27-24, in overtime in New Orleans, with Borland recovering a fumble to seal the win.

"It was my best game professionally," he said. "I'm tickled that I've got a lot of games to choose from."

But Borland is best known for what he did off the field. Though criticized by some for cutting his career short, Borland is comfortable with his decision to leave the NFL.

"I'm involved in so many cool and interesting and redeeming things," he said. "I'm enjoying every day."

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April 18, 2018
 
 
 

 

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