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.