Jeff Borland went to work Tuesday morning at his financial firm, just like any other day, except the topic of discussion among his employees was one particularly close to him, one that stirred feelings of pride.
One of the men at The Borland Group commented on the report he saw on a network morning show about how Chris Borland, 24, had walked away from the NFL after only one season because of the possible long-term effects on his brain. It was a national topic, outside of the regular realm of sports news, and a decision by Jeff Borland’s son had sparked it.
Many have already begun to question that decision. But not Jeff Borland, who let out a hearty laugh when asked how his son was able to make such a choice.
"Oh, I don’t know. I think maybe it’s one of those affirming things as a parent, you know, that maybe somewhere along the line you accidentally did something right," the elder Borland told FOX Sports by phone Tuesday morning from his office at The Borland Group in Dayton, Ohio. "Chris has had a great network of friends and family, beginning with his sister and brothers. So when it came time to make the decision, the support for his decision was unanimous and very positive. And I think maybe that helped him do it."
Chris Borland’s NFL career was off to a fantastic start. A third-round pick out of Wisconsin, he led the San Francisco 49ers in tackles last season and was named the NFL’s defensive rookie of the month in November. He was slated to take over a full-time role at inside linebacker following the retirement of Patrick Willis. He was on his way to a stellar career, millions of dollars, plenty of accolades and a lifestyle as extravagant as he wanted it to be.
But before his rookie season even began, Borland had told his family it might be his one and only year in the NFL.
All five of Borland’s siblings made sure they attended at least one game in 2014 because they knew it might be their only chance to see him on the field. Jeff and Zebbie, Chris’ mom, also attended games and saw how their son could succeed at the highest level of the game, all the while realizing the potential dangers of the game were on his mind.
Jeff Borland, who didn’t allow any of his sons to play football until high school because he "knew they’d like it," certainly understood his son’s apprehension.
Jeff said one of the things that makes him proud is that Chris gave the Niners a full effort while mulling his future.
"He’s been quite introspective. He’s reasoned it out on his own," Jeff Borland said. "The thing he’s repeated is the decision itself was simple. You’re just not made to take that kind of contact, that kind of trauma to our heads. If this goes on, it can’t be good.
"It’s all of the things you talk about around it: the money, the team, the big stage, bright lights — all the things that go with it that make the decision harder. The fact of the matter is you’re being privileged to do something that most people don’t get the chance to do. And you can’t forget the fact that playing the game is fun. It just has repercussions."
The NFL has been dealing with concerns about health and safety for years now. They’ve modified the rules to reduce helmet-to-helmet collisions and have increased measures for players who suffer concussions during games. The league has also instituted programs designed to make youth football safer. The fact Borland’s situation was being discussed on a morning news program, with parents across the nation watching, is something that will concern those in the league office.
On Tuesday morning, the NFL released a statement from Jeff Miller, the league’s senior vice president of health and safety policy, in which Miller expressed "respect" for Borland’s "personal" decision.
"By any measure, football has never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players," Miller’s statement read. "Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year downward trend. We continue to make significant investments in independent research to advance the science and understanding of these issues. We are seeing a growing culture of safety. Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do and player safety will continue to be our top priority."
Jeff Borland agrees there’s plenty of more work to do, particularly in the area of identifying and diagnosing concussions. His son had two documented concussions, and he wouldn’t be surprised if there were more.
"You don’t go through this without being unscathed, and this is where his research into this and speaking with the people that are doing the science (comes into play)," Jeff Borland said. "There are many, many different definitions of what it means to have a concussion. Having had clearly two or three for sure in the past . . . Who knows? It may mean nothing, it might be significant. You just don’t know."
Chris Borland, who missed the 49ers’ final two games with an ankle injury and has dealt with shoulder issues in college, as well, wasn’t interested in dealing with uncertainties. And now, he’s reignited a national debate that’s been raging in recent years.
It’s another reason his father is proud.
"That’s fair," Jeff Borland said. "He, and even one of the other players who were out the last couple of games, admitted that while they were on the sideline they kind of couldn’t believe they at one time were out there doing that. All of us that played high school or dabbled with it in college remember all of that.
"But you stand on the sideline of a live practice at the professional level — not just big-time college but at the professional level — or during a game and it will back you up. The speed, strength, power, it’ll cause you to step back. At the highest level, it’s a dangerous occupation."