As a parent, I often second-guessed my decision to not let my son even consider playing football until high school. After watching 49ers linebacker Chris Borland walk away from the game, my son may never have a say in the matter
Football isn’t going anywhere, certainly not anytime soon. Let’s get that out of the way. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to see the pool of NFL prospects drying up completely. But that pool will shrink, and some players will hang up their cleats much earlier than those of previous generations. That, in part, will be the lasting legacy of Chris Borland, who retired at age 24 despite not missing any time during his rookie season with a concussion or head trauma.
But players leaving the game in their prime (or even before entering their prime) won’t sound football’s death knell. There always will be players for whom the game is all they’ve ever known. They were born into a football family and played it ever since they can remember. It’s part of their DNA, and you’ll probably have to drag them off the field.
There will be players who view football as a means to an end. Whether that’s a college education or a high salary they wouldn’t attain in the real world, they’ll stay in the game as long as they can.
There will be players who take up the game and find that it just comes naturally. They are blessed with ability and instincts for football, and they won’t have the heart to turn their backs on those gifts.
But there will be others who don’t fit into those categories, those who in years past would have taken up the game just because that’s what people did—but who no longer will, because of safety concerns.
My son falls into that last category.
Very early on, my wife and I decided that our son, now 8, wouldn’t be allowed to even consider playing football until high school. If he wanted to play as a teenager, then we would have a lengthy discussion about it.
It was the same decision my parents made for me, and my father was a very good high school player who received a college scholarship. That meant no Boca Jets youth football with my friends. I had to wait until high school. When that time came, I went through spring practice as a freshman, but we moved. At my new school, I could play a sport I was better at (golf) in the fall. I didn’t really see much of a choice.
As parents, my wife and I didn’t have some anti-football epiphany. There wasn’t some groundbreaking research that we read. To us, it was a common-sense decision. Why would we have our son risk a major injury (to his head or otherwise) before his body could handle it?
In my life and through my job, I’ve come to view football as a sport that provides things that others perhaps can’t. Many of my high school buddies played football together, and they’ve shared experiences and bonds that I’ll never understand. But over the course of my career, I’ve seen the toll football can take. Yes, there are the former players who struggle to walk, and guys who have mangled hands, but the images that really hit home are of the players I covered.
When I covered Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, a great player whom Borland was most often compared to, we would get into arguments about what he perceived as overzealous questions about his health. I would ask his parents, sister and friends if they were concerned, and he didn’t like that very much. But I would see him basically punch-drunk in the locker room after many a game. I could tell Thomas didn’t know what he was saying. I felt it was my duty to ask those questions, because I didn’t think anyone was protecting Thomas, even from himself. Maybe I was wrong to do that. I don’t know.
As a parent, you second-guess just about every decision you make, even when sound reasoning has shaped your course of action. Did I make the right choice? How will that affect my son or daughter years down the road? Did I take away a chance to learn life lessons?
Certainly, holding back football from my son is a decision that I had second-guessed along the way. But that’s where Borland’s decision comes in.
When ESPN broke the news on Monday night of Borland’s early retirement, my reaction was, “Wow,” then, quickly, “I knew we were right.” Not only did I feel reassured that we had made the right decision for our son, but the news likely emboldened us. Now there might not be much of a discussion if our son wants to play football. But that’s a few years down the road, and who knows what kinds of medical advancements might allow us to open our minds.
There have been early retirements in the NFL before. Just look at the likes of Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Robert Smith, Al Toon, Wayne Chrebet and Jake Plummer. But no matter how loudly the pro-football crowd wants to proclaim otherwise, Borland’s departure is different.
Other players who retired this offseason could be readily explained. Jason Worilds, 27, was a talented player who never seemed to truly love the game (at least in the NFL) and decided to pursue something else. Patrick Willis, 30, was a terrific player for most of his eight seasons but had injury problems, and he wanted to make an impact off the field. Jake Locker, 26, showed promise but didn’t come close to staying healthy in any of his four seasons. Maurice Jones-Drew, soon to be 30, played nine seasons as a running back, which is like playing 15 at any other position—and he was never the same after a 2012 foot injury. All of those players had made millions already.
Borland? Completely different, and shocking.
In his second season, he was about to ascend to the full-time starter role at inside linebacker for the storied 49ers in place of Willis. If he stayed healthy, Borland was on his way to making millions.
And Borland was relatively healthy in a football sense. He said he had two diagnosed concussions: one playing soccer in the eighth grade, another playing football as a sophomore in high school. He believed he sustained a concussion in training camp last year, but it went undiagnosed as he attempted to make the team. Borland only missed the last two games of his rookie season with an ankle injury.
Coming out of Wisconsin, he was known as a gamer, a guy who just loved playing and learning everything about his sport. Football was instinctive to him, and his intelligence was highly regarded. With all that going for him, he still gave up the game (and untold riches) after doing extensive research about concussions and the long-term effects of head trauma, namely the potential to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Parents everywhere who have kept their sons and daughters away from football must be looking at Borland and saying, “With all that he knows and has experienced, if he made that decision, then we must be doing the right thing.”
Maybe Borland will turn out to be an outlier. Maybe football doesn’t need my son, or the children of like-minded people. I’m willing to concede it doesn’t, not anytime soon.
But the pool of players going forward will be smaller, both from young kids staying on the sideline and from other NFL players looking at Borland’s decision and thinking that cashing out early is the smarter play.
Football isn’t going anywhere, but it won’t be the same after Borland.
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