Chris Borland knows firsthand all about the challenges of early retirement, having stepped away from a promising football career after one year because of concerns over head injuries.
Instead of playing in front of boisterous crowds on the big NFL stage, Borland spends his time now helping other football players and military veterans make that adjustment to their new lives that often lack the thrill and competitiveness of life in the armed forces or professional sports.
“One healthy thing I’d like for players to know, whether they’re active or former, is you likely can’t replicate the thrill of playing before 100,000 people and big hits and making that much money,” Borland said. “We can get ourselves into trouble trying to. Coming to terms with transitioning is one of the harder lessons I’ve had to learn the last couple of years, is that life is a little more methodical than in sports. The peaks aren’t as high and the valleys aren’t as low.
“That’s an adjustment we have to make.”
Borland, whose brothers Joe and John serve in the Army, sees similar retirement challenges for veterans, who like football players often have to deal with physical injuries and mental problems that are far less obvious as they go into society.
“It would be ill-advised to compare war and a sport, but I don’t think the brain knows the difference,” Borland said. “With post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries in blasts with veterans, we see a very similar and somewhat unique issue with repetitive brain injuries in football. There are very similar physical struggles, but also two populations that have a hard time transitioning out whether it is the military or football and reintegrating into society.”
Borland has tried to bridge those two populations with his work with the After the Impact Fund , which facilitates custom treatment plans for veterans and athletes with traumatic brain injuries.
He is raising money and awareness for the issue this week by taking part in “Pat’s Run” on Saturday in Tempe, Arizona, alongside his brothers Joe and John. The run is named after Pat Tillman, who gave up his own promising NFL career to join the Army in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and died while serving in Afghanistan in 2004.
“A lot of what you do as a teammate is you sacrifice for others and support others,” John Borland said. “There are people we’ve all been teammates with, for us it’s soldiers. For Chris, it’s ex-football players. You don’t just forget your teammates as soon as the game is over. They’re still your teammates. There are people who still need support, who worked hard and are with you. These are guys you shared blood with.”
John Borland is a major in the U.S. Army, an instructor at West Point and also served in Iraq. Joe Borland is a captain in the US Army JAG Corps who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, returning just last month from his latest tour.
They see plenty in common with what their friends in the military deal with after leaving the service and what ex-athletes go through as well.
“The similarities and the overlap is they both are young when they start off and young when they’re done as well for the most part,” Joe Borland said. “They potentially would have suffered similar injuries but in a different way. The impacts in the NFL and the impacts we might have with an explosion or trauma in the military can be similar.”
Those brain injuries are why the 27-year-old Borland retired from football three years ago in a decision that shocked many outsiders, but was one his brothers knew came from careful consideration.
Borland was a third-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft by San Francisco after a stellar college career at Wisconsin, where he was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a second-team All-American in 2013.
Borland led the 49ers in tackles as a rookie and was named to the all-rookie team and was a Pro Bowl alternate before stepping away for a post-playing career that includes a company he started, T Mindful, to help bring meditation into sports.
“About 10 percent of the time, I miss 3 to 5 percent of the game,” Borland said. “I look back and I’m happy that I played. I’m not wistful. You miss big games. I miss the locker room camaraderie. Sometimes I miss the lifestyle. It’s great to get around old players because in a society where people like to dance around topics, it’s good to be around like-minded people who cut the BS and are able to rib one another. I enjoyed that. But I don’t long for it or reminisce daily. A piece of my heart will always be in football, but my mind ended it.”
Borland, who started playing tackle football in ninth grade, finds it preposterous that children are still playing the sport with fewer rules protecting them than the adults in the pros.
Even the rules in the NFL like limits on contact in practice and a recent rule change to outlaw leading with the helmet are only small steps.
“Those are all incremental improvements,” Borland said. “A lot of it is PR. When they do those things, they’re able to say the game is safer than ever. Safer than ever is a euphemism for dangerous and football is inherently dangerous. The way it’s played, if it’s going to retain what it is as a game, it will always be dangerous. What’s not being done that could be are measures outside the lines like waiting until high school to play and having high schools and colleges adopt the same contact rules as the NFL.”
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