Lowell Cohn: Chris Borland’s retirement a choice to admire

With Chris Borland you noticed the voice.

He spoke softly, just above a whisper. He always was polite and he always sat at his locker during the week available for interviews, unlike some of his more famous teammates. But he spoke softly and you leaned in to hear him, and you realized two things. He was quieting things down - making the dialog polite and civilized. And he seemed to be thinking of other things.

His mind was elsewhere. Or he had other things on his mind. On Monday, when he announced his retirement from football at age 24 after just one season with the 49ers, we learned what those other things were. He had been internally debating the risk/reward equation of big-time football. He had been asking the most basic question: “What is the meaning of my life.”

He decided his life has meaning without football. He decided to just walk away. “I just thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? Is this how I’m going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I’ve learned and knew about the dangers?’” He said this to ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

He reconsidered his job in light of staggering medical evidence that pro football causes repeated concussions and repeated concussions lead to brain damage and brain damage shortens and ruins lives. Borland is unwilling to take the risk.

As a player, he was a madman. I am describing how he played football. He was small for a middle linebacker - 5-11 - and he made his mark by hitting hard, by being tougher than everyone else, literally by sticking his head in there. His soft voice is the corrective to his madman play. He prefers being the soft-spoken Chris Borland to the Madman Chris Borland. He figures he’ll stick around longer that way.

To which all of us should say, “Good for you, Chris. God love you, Chris.”

It took incredible bravery to walk away from fame and fortune, from the possibility of a long, distinguished career to keep his brain well and functioning, to have a normal life, to be happy. Most readers who wrote to my Twitter account support Borland, understand this is a personal decision, understand the danger of football starting with pee-wee football.

Not everyone felt that way. Niners radio analyst Tim Ryan went on KNBR and said something unfortunate. “Patrick Willis retired, Chris Borland quit.”

Ryan meant that Willis retired because of bad feet and a higher calling, a religious calling. Ryan could accept what Willis did. He had trouble accepting what Borland did. Borland was supposed to take Willis’ spot. Borland’s leaving hurts the team, leaves a gap in the defense.

Surely, Ryan will repent calling Borland a quitter, will come to understand and appreciate Borland. And then Ryan will apologize.

Borland is not the only young player to retire recently. Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds, 27, retired last week. Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker, 26, just retired. Others will do the same.

You can’t exactly call this a trend. It’s not like players are defecting from the NFL by the dozen. This is not the end of the NFL. Nothing like that. But such retirements no longer will seem novel or strange. They will happen with regularity and everyone will understand - should understand - head injury is an inescapable part of football. And some players want to escape that.

Parents will think harder about letting their children play high school and even college football. They should. My son wanted to play high-school football - wide receiver. I said no way. No freaking way. I also said he could not have a skateboard. I laid down an edict. Football and skateboarding weren’t going to happen. He played baseball and soccer and ran track. Fine by me. He had fun. His brain works just fine.

Lots of people need to make hard decisions. The NFL needs to make a hard decision. From time to time, you hear the schedule may increase to 18 games - there’s sentiment for an increase. Sure, the sentiment is owners will make even more money over the damaged brains of players. It’s like to them players aren’t human beings. Players are disposable parts. Replaceable parts. Things.

If the league has a heart, here’s what it should do. Bury the idea of an 18-game schedule. Never bring it up again. And then the league should banish the preseason, those stupid meaningless exhibition games. Players get hurt in those games. Players get concussions in those games. Just get rid of the games. Think about the players. For once.

Am I saying football is bad?

No, I am not. I love watching and covering the NFL.

But I am saying grownup men have a choice - to play or not to play. I am saying both decisions are right. I am saying either decision is a matter of individual conscience. I am saying the medical evidence is staring us in the face. Players who choose not to play deserve our admiration. So do players who choose to play.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at

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