Athlete to Educator: Chris Borland wants to talk
"If I live a long, healthy life and upon autopsy have stage 1 or 2 CTE, that would have been worth it to me. If my mind falls apart in 10 years, absolutely not."
In 2014, star 49ers linebacker Chris Borland stunned the NFL zeitgeist when he exited the NFL after one season at the ripe football-playing age of 24. Before Luke Keuchly, before Andrew Luck, before Ali Marpet, it was Borland who made the rare decision to put his health ahead of whatever NFL accolades and monster contracts awaited. It was Borland who went public about fears of repetitive brain injuries and CTE after his own extensive research. And because the notion of quitting a league that half of America would cut out their tongues to play in was so rare, it was Borland who became the face of a new resistance.
ESPN followed him around for four months after he quit and published a longform story dubbing Borland, The Most Dangerous Man in Football. “I never intended to be an advocate or activist but did that immediately after I quit because my story was in the news and I thought I could be helpful,” Borland said.
After Borland weathered the storm that followed his exit from football, he dedicated his existence to being helpful. He interned at the Carter Center for Mental Health to gain a deeper understanding of the issues of brain chemistry and mindfulness. He then worked on a pilot program at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin called Center for Healthy Minds, with Harvard Ph.D Richard Davidson and would later become a certified teacher at the Search Inside Yourself Institute, a corporate wellness program that was initially funded by Google but is now an independent non-profit.
Borland has always been grounded. Being the sixth of seven kids, all but one of his siblings a boy, he had to be. Even as he rose to stardom at the University of Wisconsin and then during his brief stint in San Francisco, he kept perspective and an inquisitive mind.
Now 31, Borland still dabbles in advocacy but has transitioned to a litany of media projects in the documentary and podcasting arenas. Borland was an executive producer on the documentary Requiem for a Running Back about former running back Lew Carpenter who died from CTE and he has a major podcasting project in the works.
We caught up with Borland to discuss his journey in and out of football, his thoughts on player safety, and what will happen when we can test for CTE in the living.
Melissa Jacobs: I understand you didn’t start playing football until the ninth grade. Why didn’t you start sooner?
Chris Borland: My dad had that as a rule. That predated any concerns about brain injury. He was a believer that playing a variety of sports developed athleticism and he didn’t think very highly of youth football. Football is a sport that requires strength and explosiveness, and football can be whichever kid hits puberty first can just run everybody over.
I think he was wise and ahead of his time as specialization has become a huge issue with injury and burnout and all of that. So growing up I played everything. I played a ton of soccer and basketball. I played baseball and tennis. I also did swimming and diving. As a huge sports fan, I used to wonder why Ken Griffey Jr. only played baseball and Brett Favre only played football because the seasons didn’t overlap. I did everything and I loved it. Like millions of American boys, I would always say I wanted to be a professional athlete.
MJ: When did you know you were good enough to possibly play in the NFL?
CB: It’s funny because soccer and basketball were my main things. In the 90’s football players would call soccer players, “grass fairies” but they didn’t really pick on me. Our neighbor two doors down coached the youth football program and all my friends played football. Mr. Herb would come over and it amounted to a micro-recruiting trip. “Hey Jeff, why don’t you let the boys come out this year?” and my dad would say, “No, no, it can wait.”
When I went out in ninth grade, I had already played a ton of backyard football with older kids and older brothers who didn’t take it easy on me. Those games were more physical than ninth-grade organized football. But I’d never put on pads or worn a helmet or tried to catch. I remember my first practice I didn’t know how to put on the gear, how to stand or what gaps were. I played running back so they’d hand me the ball, I’d put it in one hand and start making a bunch of jukes. For a second, I thought maybe I just like backyard football more.
But really within that first practice, I got the hang of it, and I knew within a few weeks that I’d fallen in love with football.
I knew I really wanted to do this but I was small. I entered high school at 5’5” and between 150-160 pounds. But I grew to be just under 6 feet and started lifting so I kind of just grew into being a good football player. But it wasn’t like I was a can’t miss prospect. I was a 5’11”, 200-pound, kinda slow running back. But I loved it and was intentional about pursuing a scholarship.
MJ: What was it like getting the scholarship to Wisconsin?
CB: My grandpa went to Wisconsin and my dad grew up in Madison. My parents settled in Dayton, but we were always Badgers fans, My dad would talk fondly about the school and town.
During my junior year, my dad asked me if I had scholarship offers from every school in the country – I had zero scholarship offers, by the way – where would you choose to go, and I said Wisconsin. So my brother drove me up there between my junior and senior year and after camp, the coach offered me a scholarship. It was my first and I called him 45 minutes later and committed. It was a dream come true.
I had a really charmed experience in football. We lost two games in four years in high school. We beat both of those teams my senior year to go undefeated and win the state championship. My one and only scholarship offer was to my dream school. It was a lot of fun for my family. My dad hadn’t gone back much so it was really fun for him. And Madison’s just a great town. The old mayor used to say it’s 88 square acres surrounded by reality. It’s beautiful. It’s a great school. The program has been powerful for a long time.
MJ: When you were drafted by the 49ers in the third round was playing football still feeling like a dream come true, or were you already starting to have doubts about the sport?
CB: If I go back and think about it, I set the goal of playing Division I as a junior in high school. People laughed at that because I wasn’t drawing interest and wasn’t a big prospect or anything. The Wisconsin offer came out of the blue but after I’d get some offers. Division III schools would call and I’d say, ‘Thanks for your interest, but I’m already committed.’ They’d say to where and I’d say Wisconsin and they’d say, The UNIVERSITY of Wisconsin?
So I still had doubts when I got to college if I could still play in the Big 10 and to go so quickly from those doubts to success was a little surprising. Everything had been so charmed up through my sophomore year. The first game I got injured and came back to try and play and then got hurt in the fifth game. I had broken a bone in my shoulder so had to take a redshirt year and rehab for a year and a half.
The doubts crept in from, ‘Will I ever be able to play to will I be able to play at the level I did my freshman year and continue to get better?’ Ultimately, I would but three surgeries, lots of violent collisions, painkillers, fans saying awful things, the reality that’s it’s hard to truly be a student and an athlete impacted me.
While I was still thrilled to be drafted, I was thinking about the surgeries, plus a general awareness of CTE. I didn’t know what the acronym even stood for yet, but I did know Junior Seau had taken his life while I was in college and when what’s sold to the public and sold to recruits doesn’t match your experience you need to peer behind the curtain.
But the idea of quitting after a year was nowhere in my consciousness when I got drafted. Again, for me in my jump from high school to college, it went from a pipe dream to teams flying you out and visiting Madison and asking you to draw up plays. And I fell into a great situation in San Francisco with one of the best defenses in the NFL. They were coming off three consecutive NFC championships and one Super Bowl. I was excited to learn under Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and become the next great linebacker for the 49ers. That’s what I was thinking after the 2014 draft.
MJ: You have this incredible rookie year and then you retire. When does the mind start churning and when did you know you were done?
CB: I think of it as being between training camp and the middle to end of the regular season. Third round picks usually make the team, but I was vying for a starting position, and I got a concussion in training camp that I didn’t report because I couldn’t have won the starting job had I done that. It got me thinking. At that point, I had been a little ignorant about the issue of CTE. The first known case was Mike Webster who went to Wisconsin. He’s a Wisconsin legend and folks are pretty ho-hum on his demise. His Hall of Fame plaque sits outside of our locker room but there’s no mention of the fact that he died young or tragically.
So that concussion made me think. I had a bad head injury in tenth grade, and I just played through everything. There were many times I saw stars or didn’t feel quite right. I think being concussed at the onset of my NFL career made me think about Junior Seau and question what was really going on. What did CTE stand for? Were Webster and Seau these outliers or was this much more common?
So I just set out in football with no end goal in mind, just to learn what I might be getting myself into. The more I learned the more it was clear that Webster and Seau weren’t outliers. In fact, it seemed a lot more common even in players who had played less than I had to that point. So, my mindset changed from playing as long as I could to maybe three years. The more I learned and thought about my own injury history, the harder even that became to justify.
I wouldn’t want to be one foot out the door anyways, it’s a sport that requires complete commitment. So the only decision I had to make in the months after the season was whether it would be three years or one year. I spent an agonizing two and a half months after the season still reading and reflecting and ultimately decided I was going to walk away.
People always ask was that it was a hard decision, but I think if you experienced it and informed yourself, it was a practical and sensible one. The hard thing was dealing with the fallout of going against the grain on something that’s a religion in America.
MJ: How did your teammates react?
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