Chris Rolfe is in his first season as the director of operations for Notre Dame soccer and even though he hosted a big alumni event there on Friday evening and then oversaw the Irish’s stunning 1-0 victory over No. 21 Duke, he still got on the road early Saturday morning to come to Dayton.
He drove here with his dog Max to help his friend and his hometown.
Rolfe – a soccer star at Fairmont High School, the University of Dayton and then 12 years as a pro – was one of several athletes helping Borland launch the first day of the three-day Dayton Peace Festival at the Dayton International Peace Museum downtown on Monument Avenue.
Himself a football standout at Alter, Wisconsin and with the San Francisco 49ers, Borland put together the Peace Festival as a way of helping the people of Dayton move forward from the Oregon District mass shooting on Aug. 4 that left 10 dead (including the shooter) and 27 injured.
While the festival – which continues today and concludes late Monday afternoon – includes everything from prayers, mediation and yoga to panels of local and national experts talking about gun control, mental health and racism, Saturday was all about kids.
There was food, music, face painting, corn hole and other games and there was laughter.
There were athletes – like Ohio State football players Robert Landers and Derrick Malone and Dayton Flyers basketball player Trey Landers – and there was a lesson of deep friendship that Borland and Rolfe can reflect on like few others.
“It’s a pretty interesting story really,” Rolfe – who, at 36, is eight years older than Borland – said Saturday.
“I hadn’t realized that when we were younger, Chris became like an amateur fan of mine. He knew about me playing for a club team here and at Fairmont and he followed my career when I was at the University of Dayton and as a pro.”
Rolfe won All-State honors at Fairmont, All-America honors at UD and was a third-round pick of the Chicago Fire in the 2005 Major League Soccer draft.
He was an instant hit with the Fire – scoring 30 goals in his first four seasons – and then signed with a Danish team in 2009. He returned to MLS three years later, first playing for Chicago again and then being traded to D.C. United in Washington. D.C., where he again starred and was he team MVP in 2015.
Borland was just starting his football career when Rolfe became a pro.
“At that point I didn’t know much about him,” Rolfe said. “But I knew his older brother, John.
“Later, when Chris was at Wisconsin, I happened to hear the name – ‘Borland’ – and I went. ‘That’s familiar. I wonder if that’s John brother?’
“I found out he was, but we never interacted.”
After having one dynamic season with the 49ers – he led the team in tackles and won NFL All-Rookie honors – Borland retired over concerns with the head trauma caused in the collisions of his sport. It became a highly-publicized, much-debated national story and Rolfe followed it.
“I’m not a big fan of social media, but there’s one great aspect,” Rolfe said. “After he retired I found him on Twitter and sent him a direct message telling him who I was and how proud I was of him.
“I said: ‘I admire your courage. What a great example you’re setting for a lot of people out there.’
“From that point on, we just formed a bond.”
And soon after that connection was strongly fortified by a bruising incident that left Rolfe reeling from the very same symptoms Borland was trying to avoid.
‘I deal with it on almost a daily basis’
On April 30, 2016, Rolfe — then with D.C .United — returned to Chicago to play the Fire at Toyota Stadium. In the game’s 32nd minute, he caught an inadvertent elbow to the right side of his nose.
Although sustaining a withering blow, he continued to play. But after the game he began experiencing more and more problems with light, balance and comprehension.
Over the next few days the symptoms intensified and he had trouble driving, reading, even walking. He was diagnosed with a concussion, the fifth of his 12-year pro career.
The complications persisted for months and he never would play again.
In November of 2017 Rolfe announced his retirement, joining other MLS players like Devon McIntosh, Alecko Eskandarian, Davy Arnaud, Bryan Namoff and Joss Gros who left the game due to head injuries.
“When I got my concussion Chris had been out of football maybe a year and had been doing a ton of research,” Rolfe said. “When I retired he reached out to me and that’s when our bond really started forming. I mean how many guys can talk to you about going through a concussion and dealing with that injury? It’s hard for anyone else unless they’ve gone through it, too.
“He became someone I really leaned on. He had such empathy and was so kind and caring. He’s been a huge part of my life the past 3 to 3 ½ years. And those have been the three toughest years of my life.”
Even today Rolfe said he endures the lingering effects of his head injury.
“I deal with it on almost a daily basis,” he said.
Some days he said he can anticipate what might be a traumatic situation and prepare for it beforehand and sometimes he’s caught off guard. And there are other days that are without incident.
“It’s still a balance I’m trying to find,” he admitted. “Sometimes I nail it and everything works and other days I miss it a little bit and struggle for a couple of days.”
‘It really hit home’
There were a few memorable moments at Saturday’s event:
Mike Turner – the father of Logan Turner, the former Springboro High football player who was killed in the Oregon District shooting — showed up with his family, toured the peace museum, hugged Borland for the efforts he’s put into the festival and then talk about his own campaign of love and embrace since his son was killed.
The Landers brothers, whose father was shot and killed 13 years ago in front of a Salem Avenue muffler shop – the case remains unsolved — met with the area representative for Moms Demand Action, a gun safety organization, and signed a petition backing the group’s effort.
Rolfe said when he awoke that Sunday morning after the Oregon District shooting — once he found out his family and friends back here were safe — he felt a real sadness and a sorrow for the victims and his hometown.
“And then that quickly transitioned into anger,” he said. “You are frustrated by the number of shootings that occur these days. Almost every morning you hear of some kind of shooting.
“And I’m sure Chris has had similar experiences to mine. Because of our careers we have friends all over the country and, really, all over the world. And while some of the other places affected might not be our hometown, it might be a town where we spent time or have old friends.
“After the Newtown shooting occurred – (the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary killed 26 including 20 children) - I went there with a doctor and we did an event. One of my best friends when I played in Denmark was from Newtown, Connecticut. His parents had taught at the school.
“Now with the Oregon District, it really hit home and the frustration continues because the conversations aren’t being heard or they aren’t heard correctly.”
He believes this weekend’s Peace Festival is a step toward changing that.
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