There are times when Chris Borland does the unexpected.
That was the case just over three years ago when he suddenly walked away from a million-dollar NFL contract and the cusp of football greatness after a much trumpeted rookie season as a hard-hitting linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers.
And that’s what happened again early Friday morning when he called from Boulder, Colorado where he was taking part in the week-long Conference on World Affairs.
“They bring in speakers from all over the world to do 200 panels on everything,” Borland explained “Roger Ebert (the late film critic of the Chicago Sun Times) was a long time attendee and he dubbed it ‘The Conference on Everything Conceivable.”’
So what was Borland doing Friday?
The 27-year-old former Alter High School star started to chuckle:
“I’m about to be part of a panel on building healthy, intimate relationships. I’m going on with a sex researcher and a psychologist who studies awkwardness.”
After the conference ended, he planned to return to California – he lives in Los Angeles now – and put some attention into the business he founded and serves as the CEO – T Mindful, a company that integrates meditation into athletics.
Next Saturday he’ll be in Tempe, Arizona with two of his brothers – U.S. Army Capt. Joe Borland, a JAG lawyer just back from another tour of Iraq, and Major John Borland, an instructor at West Point who also served in Iraq – as they team up to do Pat’s Run.
The fundraising 4.2-mile effort that honors former Arizona Cardinals standout Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to join the Army Rangers following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and was killed fighting in Afghanistan in 2004.
The Borland brothers are running to raise funds and awareness for the After the Impact Fund, which facilitates custom treatment plans for military veterans and athletes with traumatic brain injuries.
And it’s with this venture – as is often the case with Chris Borland – that you know just what to expect from him.
He’s is a guy who holds firm on his beliefs and stays true to his cause, regardless of the challenges, the sacrifices and the doubters.
When he quit football – following a career in which he led Alter to a state title, Wisconsin to three Big Ten crowns and led San Francisco in tackles and made the NFL’s All Rookie Team – Borland did so after conscientious research and a heart-wrenching decision. He feared a brain injury could come from the violent collisions that are part of the fabric of the game he loved.
After all, concussions – and he figures he’s had at least three in his sports career – have been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE,) which was found in the post-mortem brain of numerous NFL stars including Hall of Famers Junior Seau, Ken Stabler and Frank Gifford, Super Bowl champs John Mackey, Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and All Pros Andre Waters and Cookie Gilchrist.
“Chris played as hard as he could that last year, gathered his information and made his decision,” said Zebbie Borland, his mom. “He always said he made the decision for himself, he didn’t make it for the rest of the world.”
But the world took notice, not just because he was an ascending star, but because he showed what kind of man he was when he promptly gave back most of the $617,436 signing bonus he had been given, as well.
That he chose health over money and fame – especially at a time when the NFL was wont to deny the science about the damaging neurological affects that come from the game – put him on a stage he had never expected.
“Since his retirement he met with movie producers and neurosurgeons and people like Dr. Ann McKee at the Boston (VA-BU-SLI) Brain Bank,” Zebbie said. “In a normal lifetime he’d never get behind the scenes with these kinds of people.”
If you know Borland you know he does not seek the spotlight, the headlines or even a pat on the back. But he‘s also not one to shy away from the responsibilities- even those thrust on him — that come with his decisions.
He took part in a first of its kind study of former players at the Center of Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin and since then has become a tireless advocate and fundraiser to help former players suffering the effects of CTE or degenerative brain disease.
It’s that kind of commitment that got him to Boulder this past week, where he also took part in other panel discussions about the debilitating effects of football and what can be done to protect athletes — including his belief that tackle football for youngsters should be done away with.
And so he and his brothers are taking part in Saturday’s run in Tempe.
If Pat Tillman is the patron saint of football and military commitment, then the Borland Brothers are the perfect family to draw focus on help that’s needed when those commitments draw consequences.
After the Impact Fund (aftertheimpactfund.org) pairs athletes and military veterans together in their treatments because there’s often a real connection between the groups, Joe Borland said Friday from Fort Benning, Georgia:
“Just like football is a contact sport, the military is a combat situation and you can end up with some of the same problems. And the guys in the military and in the NFL are in the same age group so they tend to open up to each other.
“Guys in the military look up to those in the NFL and most U.S. citizens across the board respect guys who have gone into service, so a bond can form there.”
Any positive helps when there is such a glaring need.
Even the NFL, which often tamps down its numbers, has admitted that it expects 6,000 to nearly 20,000 ex-players to suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia one day.
And a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report in July of 2016 found that an average of 20 veterans a day commit suicide and that over 7,400 veterans took their own lives in 2014. That was 18 percent of all suicides in America.
“Right after I retired I worked in the area of mental health with an organization called One Mind,” Chris said. “I learned that 36 percent of all the injuries returning from war now are post-traumatic stress brain injuries relating to blasts and other things. I didn’t think that that would account for over one third of the injuries (347,962 military service members were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries from 2000 to 2016) affecting our veterans.”
An informed decision
Zebbie and Jeff Borland raised their seven children on Avon Way in Kettering. Athletics was big in the household and most of the kids excelled at multiple sports.
Joe, the oldest, lettered in five sports at Alter. John lettered in two and played soccer at West Point. Their sister Sarah was a gymnast and then a club rugby player at Ohio University. Brother Mark was part of Alter’s 1999 state championship basketball team and then played at Wittenberg. Matt was an All American soccer player at Wittenberg and Luke, the youngest, is, as Chris has put it, “the smartest in the family.”
Joe agreed: “We’ll probably all be working for him one day.”
After Alter, Joe was a cheerleader at Miami University, got his law degree at the University of Toledo and worked for three years until – moved by John’s graduation ceremony at West Point – ended up joining the army.
He’s a lawyer in the JAG (Judge Advocate General’s) Corps, has done two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan and is about to be reassigned to Washington, D.C.
Joe said he initially was “a little surprised” when Chris – one of the most talked about young players in the NFL in 2014 – decided to retire after one pro season:
“But when he told me his reasons, it was obvious he had really researched it and had made an informed decision. I don’t know if I’d have been able to make that same decision at that age, but I was proud of him.”
Zebbie talked to Chris about his decision, as well.
“He could look out from under is helmet and see some older guys across from him who were already damaged.
“He’d talk to some family members and wives and hear how guys had trouble remembering who was in their wedding or how they got mixed up on their kids’ names.
“Some guys might go on and live to be 70 or 80, but they had no quality of life.”
Chris said while he was doing everything he could during his Wisconsin days to prove his detractors wrong – to prove that a stocky, 5-foot-11, whirling dervish of a linebacker could be a force in the NFL – he never focused on the toll that could come from his throw-caution-to-the-wind style of play.
But then came the observations and his own personal experiences and the nagging truth troubled him.
He loved the game of football – still does really – but the realization of the damage being done “broke my heart.”
Joe called his brother “an old soul” and said “I think he saw how our parents interact with their grandkids and thought about one day perhaps wanting to interact with his own grandkids if he had some.”
Chris said the initial reactions he got from people was “a mixed bag.” He said “People in any walk of life are reluctant to change. I got everything from villainized to admired and I don’t feel either were appropriate.
“I just listened to a voice of reason. I followed what science and my own conscious was telling me. I did what I thought was right for me.”
Although this coming season would have landed him his the first lucrative contract following the four-year, $2.3 million rookie contract he got as a third round pick, he said, “I have no regrets.”
Back at Alter – a local prep football powerhouse – he said some conversations now can be “a little awkward at times.”
And yet while he was an All-State selection who played both ways there, he doesn’t mention the big games and gaudy stats of his prep days. He talks about the camaraderie and friendships that developed.
“What we experienced together and our relationships transcend everything else,” he said. “I experienced a great deal of love and support at Alter. And that will always be a part of it.”
He and Joe and John got something else from Alter, Zebbie said.
“They were taught at home and at Alter too about giving back,” she said. “I think as adults we sometimes get to danged busy that we don’t take the time to follow through. That’s why I’m proud of the three of them now.
“Joe has two kids, John has three. Chris is going all around but they’re all making the effort to come together in Tempe and help people with traumatic brain injuries. They’re making a real effort.”
There’s something else to it as well, said Chris:
“I don’t get to see my brothers that often so this is special. I haven’t seen Joe since he deployed and I haven’t seen John since last year. They’re my older brothers and we certainly have a close bond.
“We don’t always verbalize it a lot. Like any family, when we get together, we give each other a hard time. But now, with them taking part in this fund raiser, I ‘m reminded again how special they are.
“I realize how lucky I was growing up to have had my role models sleeping in the room next to me. I admired them so much.
“And nothing really has changed.”
Just what you would expect from Chris Borland.