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 that 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 that I’ve had to learn the last couple of years — life is a little more methodical than in sports. The peaks aren’t as high and the valleys aren’t as low.”
Borland, whose brothers Joe and John serve in the US 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.
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.
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 49ers 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 that he started, T Mindful, to help bring meditation into sports.
Borland, who started playing tackle football in the 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, such as 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, such as waiting until high school to play and having high schools and colleges adopt the same contact rules as the NFL.”
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