“You really only see that in stroke patients,” Chris Nowinski, the former NFL player and pro wrestler, who’s now a neuroscientist and the CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, told NPR’s All Things Considered when he appeared a few days ago with Borland.
“It’s a sign the brain has turned off. It means an injury to the midbrain, the deepest part of the brain.”
The 24-year-old Tagovailoa had been flung powerfully to the turf on a sack by 320-pound Bengals defensive tackle Josh Tupou and suffered a concussion.
Just four days earlier, he had been knocked to the turf by a Buffalo defender after he released a pass at Hard Rock Stadium. He hit his head, eventually staggered to his feet, took a step, melted again and finally was helped off the field.
That appeared to be a concussion as well, but the Dolphins claimed he passed concussion tests at halftime and actually had a back issue. Surprisingly, he was put back it the game and Miami rallied to win.
That decision, as callous and risky as it seemed, was eclipsed by the decision to play Tagovailoa again four days later and this time the injury seemed even more severe.
“It appeared he was clearly concussed and put back in game Sunday, so there is no way he should have played Thursday,” Borland said.
A hard-hitting, much celebrated football star at Alter High School and the University of Wisconsin, Borland walked away from the NFL in 2015 after a stellar rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers.
An NFL All Rookie Team linebacker, he cited the threat of continued concussions and the way they diminished and often shortened the lives of so many former NFL players.
When we spoke Wednesday, Borland minced no words about the Tagovailoa situation:
“People die every year from second impact syndrome. Tua could have died right there in front of millions of people.”
No one realized that more than Dr. Bennet Omalu, the famed neuropathologist who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in former players. Since then, he’s advised Tagovailoa to give up football:
“Tua, my brother I love you. I love you as much as I love my own son. Stop playing. Stop. Hang (up) your helmet.”
As Omalu told TMZ: “My advice to him is, ‘You suffered severe, long term permanent brain damage.’ He seized.
“‘If you love your life. If you love your family…It’s time to gallantly walk away. Go find something else to do. Sometimes money is not more valuable than human life. $20 billion is not worth more than your brain.’”
‘Disturbing and sickening ... also predictable’
When he walked away from the game, Borland initially spoke out often about the toll concussions were taking on players and he became a tireless advocate and fundraiser to help former players suffering the effects of CTE.
Since then he’s become a film producer and one of his initial efforts – “Requiem for a Running Back,” a beautiful but heartbreaking tale that filmmaker Rebecca Carpenter has done on her dad, Lew Carpenter, the Green Bay Packer running back on three of Vince Lombardi’s NFL championship teams who suffered from CTE – is about to be released.
It is another way of addressing the problem that played out so publicly Thursday night as Tagovailoa lay on the field for over 10 minutes as grim-faced medical personal knelt around him and all of his teammates stood nearby, some of them reduced to tears.
Eventually, a back brace was slid under Tagovailoa and he was placed on a stretcher and wheeled off the field to a waiting ambulance, which rushed him to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
He was later released from the hospital so he could fly home on the team charter. That followed the obtuse postgame comments by Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, who said:
“The best news we could get is that everything checked out, that he didn’t have anything more serious than a concussion.”
Tagovailoa has been ruled out for this Sunday’s game and earlier this week the NFL and the NFL Players Association began an investigation into the way Tagovailoa’s situation was – and still is – being handled.
An unaffiliated specialist who approved the quarterback playing Thursday night has been fired, though the bigger issue is the way the league treats concussion issues.
“While Tua’s injury was disturbing and sickening, it was also predictable,” Borland said.
Over the past few days Borland has gotten several media requests to weigh in on the situation, but has done just two interviews: with NPR and this one.
“A lot of people in the media begin their reports with ‘Despite all the progress …’” he said. “I push back on that. I think that shows the PR has worked.
“The NFL has convinced people that because there is a protocol or ‘an independent neurologist,’ that there has been progress.
“I think from a player perspective, it’s likely much the same as it was when I was playing and before that. But I’m not excited that my decision (to retire) seems to be confirmed as more science comes out.”
He thinks the NFL has made things worse with Thursday night games following Sunday games – players have little time to recover – and with promoting tackle football for youngsters through its USA Football initiative.
As for the Tagovailoa situation, he doesn’t think the needle will move considerably further toward the safety end of the spectrum.
“Having swam in these waters for seven years now, I don’t think there is anything that could stop America from watching football, nor should that ever be a goal or anything,” he said.
“It’s just so engrained in our culture and there’s so much money involved.
“And with gambling involved, the next guy will come in (for the injured player). the line will be set for the next game and, meanwhile not a lot of people will be thinking about how Tua is feeling right now.”
The NFL knows it has concussion problem. Last year it reached a $1-billion settlement with former players who had sued it over concussions.
Of course that didn’t help all the former players who died prematurely or in a diminished state – people like Hall of Famers Junior Seau, Ken Stabler, Frank Gifford, John Mackey, Mike Webster, Dave Duerson and All Pros Cookie Gilchrist and Andre Waters – after which doctors discovered CTE in their post-mortem brains.
Speaking on Frontline in 2015, Borland noted how the league – oft known for low-balling figures -- estimated three in 10 players would have brain damage one day.
That’s why he walked away and no longer watches the game.
He lives in Madison, Wisc., now and is still a mental health advocate and a consultant with the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin.
He’s also continually reaching back to his hometown, whether it was putting on the Peace Festival after the mass shooting in 2019 or now providing financial support for the non-profit Future Stars of Dayton youth program run by the dynamic Jonathan Cain.
He’s also working on a documentary that will feature Dayton.
And there is “Requiem for a Running Back,” which he and Cody Gifford, Frank’s son, co-produced.
As for walking away from football and the big money contracts that come with it, he said he has no regrets or second guesses:
“People focus on the money I turned down, but I’m happy and I’m healthy. And look I didn’t take on a vow of poverty either.
“My life is OK.”
And it could serve as a blueprint for Tua Tagovailoa.