49ers inside linebacker Chris Borland, 24, became the fourth NFL player in his prime this week to announce he was crossing over the chalk line for reasons having nothing to do with any pertinent off-the-field altercation or physical shortcomings on it.
By Andrew Pridgen
Chris Borland’s retirement was for health, consciousness and longevity reasons only. He’s out shopping for rocking chairs today with his linebacking mentor Patrick Willis, 30, Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds, 27, and Titans quarterback Jake Locker, 26, all choosing to leave the game before the game leaves them.
Left on the field for the young history major from Wisconsin was a guaranteed $2.32 million over the next three seasons and then the supposed big extension or free agent contract after that.
Borland was on his way.
As a rookie, he led the 49ers in tackles with 108 in only eight starts. In his second-ever start he collected 22 tackles. He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month after recording more than 70 tackles and two interceptions in November. Go to a couple Pro Bowls, grab the big money, then it’d be all deep-sea fishing trips and being the big, funny old guy with the open tab.
Borland didn’t think so.
He pocketed about $700k for a year of service. Not bad, but not enough to carry him till the AARP mags start showing up in the mail either.
In Borland’s case, he did his research while his brain still looked like a green banana, not the splotchy brown one you find in your top desk drawer. He told ESPN he wanted to be proactive about leaving the game and referenced his study of former NFL players Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling who were diagnosed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in autopsies performed after each took his own life.
In all, more than 70 former NFL players, including linebacker great Junior Seau, have been diagnosed with brain trauma in studies of their young corpses over the past decade.
Borland said he was concerned if “you wait till you have symptoms it’s too late.”
But the man who now has his eyes set on grad school didn’t need to count the cadavers to help his decision along. There are men in advisory roles, not too much older than him, who are the living examples of the hell of life inside a post-NFL body and mind.
Sean Morey, a former standout from the Ivy League, took his 5’10” frame and wily spirit and turned it into 10-year NFL career on special teams including a Super Bowl win with the Steelers. After the final snap, he became head of the NFL Players Association’s committee on traumatic brain injury and currently is an independent consultant for players suffering from the day-to-day of brain trauma.
He knows the effects well because he’s living with them.
Recently, an NPR reporter looked through Morey’s medicine cabinet to find a prescription pad’s worth of anti-depressants, sleep aids and stimulants: Lexipro, Propranolol, Ritalin and Trazodone all taken multiple times a day in hopes to curb the effect of CTE and its associates: early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS.
All diseases Morey can no longer spear or outrun.
That’s a lot of dark, miserable years to give to have a couple jerseys unraveling in the closet. And, to paraphrase Woody Allen, not enough of them at the same time. Morey often mentions his own death as pending, and in the same sentence, the hell of the prison he’s living while making his way there.
“The dysfunction, the pain, the misery, the confusion, the desperation, the depression,” he told NPR. “There were instances in my life that would never have existed had I not damaged my brain.”
Borland told ESPN he had a concussion last summer and it made him reassess: “Is this how I’m going to live my adult life, banging my head?”
The answer is no.
Instead, he chose to use it.