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Nine NFL players discuss the Chris Borland decision, their thoughts of football’s long-term effects and where the game is headed

By dombonvissuto
March 18, 2015

Social media is awash with myriad perspectives on 49ers linebacker Chris Borland’s stunning retirement. Some consider it a drop in the bucket; others call it a watershed moment in the evolving relationship between athletes and a violent game. There was praise and vitriol for the 24-year-old Ohio native. As pundits argued the future of the sport and the merits of Borland’s motives, we wondered: What do other NFL players think?

The panel:

  • Tim Hightower, 28, Saints running back
  • Antoine Bethea, 30, 49ers safety
  • Geoff Schwartz, 28, Giants guard
  • Stevie Brown, 27, free agent, former Giants safety
  • A.J. Hawk, 31, Bengals linebacker
  • Barry Cofield, 30, free agent, former Washington nose tackle
  • Eric Winston, 31, Bengals offensive tackle, NFLPA president
  • Chris Long, 29, Rams defensive end
  • Andre Williams, 22, Giants running back

(Editor’s note: The players were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity.)

1. What was your reaction to Chris Borland retiring at age 24 because he didn't want to take the health risks that he associated with football?

Brown: It was definitely kind of shocking.

Hawk: I was definitely surprised.

Winston: Surprised. But it sounded courageous. For Chris, the risk-reward just wasn’t there.

Hightower: Mixed emotions. On one side, the guy knows what he signed up for. This isn’t a finesse sport. That being said, with everything coming out about the long-term effects of head injuries, you have to respect the decision at his young age. That takes discipline to look down the road.

Schwartz: I was surprised to read that it was a proactive retirement, not because of a current head injury. That’s probably what I take away from this story. It’s tough to walk away from this game and especially on your own terms.

Cofield: ‎Obviously he's entitled to make the decision to retire, though I don't think this should be used as an opportunity to beat up on the game. I feel medical advances and heightened awareness have made the game safer than ever. But I applaud him for doing what he thinks is right regardless of the backlash.

Williams: The first time I met him was at the rookie symposium. He seemed like a cool, quiet guy. When they came to MetLife and played us, I was like, ‘Man, this guy is going to be good,’ and now he is a former NFL player.

Hawk: I don’t know Chris personally, even though he is from basically the same hometown as I am [in Ohio]. I’d heard about him for forever, how good he was, and how good of a guy he was. I was surprised, but I definitely have huge respect for a guy who can leave on his own, when he just felt like it was time.

Long: When I watched him play last year, he jumped out at me. He really plays with passion. After the rookie year he had, how many people would have the balls to do what he did? There's a lot of pressure on football players, a lot of pressure on what you should be, what you should become, because you're good enough to be at the top of your profession. That was a big-boy decision. And this was the time to make it. After you've played three, four years, you're in it. You say, This is what I do. And that's it.

u2018I Chickened Outu2019
Ex-linebacker Scott Fujita nearly walked away because of concussion concerns but couldn't 'get off the hamster wheel.’ Peter King shares Fujita's perspective on Chris Borland's bold decision to retire from the NFL and answers questions about Deflategate, Marcus Mariota and more.

2. Have you ever felt the way Borland does about head injuries?

Schwartz: No, I haven’t. Luckily I’ve never had a head injury so it’s never crossed my mind. 

Bethea: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. Playing this game and reading the stories of the guys who played before me, I can’t say I never thought about it. But at the end of the day, there are thousands of guys who played this game and are doing fine at whatever stage of life they’re in.

Brown: No. But if I were to have a major head and neck injury, there would definitely be some kind of major consideration that would take place.

Hawk: No. I’ve been very lucky, though. Everyone is built so differently, and it seems like it’s the luck of the draw when it comes to injuries, and head injuries, especially. I don’t know the science, but I think some people are predisposed. Genetically, some people I think are more prone to having concussions. There’s such mystery about it still. The next 10, 15, 20 years will be crazy to see what more we learn.

Winston: Sure. A hundred percent. I've thought about it. But the education has helped me. I feel I know the risks I'm taking every day. So I am comfortable with the choices I've made.

Long: Any player who says he hasn't thought about it, any player who says he doesn't think about the impact of the head trauma, is either lying or just being irresponsible. The generations before us didn't know. The generation after us will know everything about the risks. Our generation—we have some information but certainly not all.

Williams: The way I think about life, I kind of think everything is a risk and there is not necessarily any surefire way you can avoid it. You might not be playing football, but you are driving every day, or flying in planes. [Giants tight end] Larry [Donnell] was just on a plane that skidded off the runway. There are risks once you open your eyes in the morning. I don’t necessarily look at football as doing anything above and beyond. I also think I was built differently from somebody else. I might be more able to play football than someone else, so it’s “safer" for me to play than someone else. I think God puts people in different positions in life where certain risks are mitigated. I don’t necessarily worry about my health when I'm playing football. That would detract from my game.

3. When you cover the league for a while, you encounter a lot of players who seem to be supporting an entire clan, pulling whole extended families out of poverty. What percentage of NFL players do you believe play to support their family as the No. 1 reason? And would you have played football if it wasn't financially necessary for you?

Hightower: Especially early in careers, I would guess at least 70%. Unless you’re coming from a well-off family you are the stream of income. Everybody needs some help. I think there are a lot of guys who might otherwise not play because of health concerns who absolutely play for the money obligations to family.

Long: I do think a large portion of players come from a background where they're pressed financially to help their family. That wasn't the case with me. I was lucky that I didn't have provide for my family, but so many of my teammates had to.

Williams: I am passionate about the game, yet if I wasn’t getting paid what I am to play, I might have tried to find a different route. It’s hard to say that I’m not playing for the money; everyone is playing for the money to a certain degree. If that check didn’t come in on Wednesday, it would be a different story for a lot of people. The love of the game definitely drives me, but it’s a business. It’s not like I check in at the regular job after I leave the office from watching film. It’s hard to say what percentage play to support their family. I think they all do unless they come from a background where that’s not really necessary, and I think that’s a small percentage.

The Borland Ripple Effect
As a parent, Greg Bedard often second-guesses his decision to not let his son even consider playing football until high school. After watching 49ers linebacker Chris Borland walk away from the game, Bedard writes that his son may never have a say in the matter.
Cofield: If I won the lottery I would still play because I genuinely enjoy the game and love the camaraderie of football and the passion of sport in general. Graduating from college, Northwestern in particular, I don't believe that playing in the NFL was financially necessary. It did, however, provide an earning potential that was hard to pass up.

Bethea: I wouldn’t play if it wasn’t lucrative. The reason you’re doing the job is because it helps you live a certain way and it helps you support the people you support.

Brown: I love the game of football, and I love playing football. If there was something else I could potentially do where I would make the same amount of money, I might. But the whole competition part of it, being around all my brothers in the locker room—I don’t know if you could replace that at a desk job making the same amount of money. It’s just kind of different.

Hawk: I would have played regardless. That was never my intention or goal going in. I like football, it’s fun for me, and I still feel the same way about the game. Football is one sport you can’t mail in; you can’t go 50 percent. If you’re on the field and your heart is not there, and you don’t want to be there, it’s going to show quickly. Other sports, you can coast by at times, but in football you’re going to get hurt quickly if that’s the case.

4. Is there a dollar figure you have in your mind that, when you reach it, you think you may retire?

Bethea: At the beginning the motivation was to play ball. But then you realize the people you’re playing for are looking at it as a business. At some point I have to as well. That’s what guys start to do. They say, when I get to this number here’s what I’m going to do.

Schwartz: No. I’ve actually never thought about this. I’m happy with my current contract, and I want to play that out. If I’m lucky enough to keep playing, that will be excellent. 

Hawk: That’s never crossed my mind. I’ve heard guys talk about, if they get a certain amount, they think they can live on that the rest of their lives. Whatever that number is, they should probably double it.

Brown: You can never have too much money. My goal in the NFL is to play for 10 years and play well for 10 years. If I am able to reach 10 years, I’ve had a great career, no matter the amount of money I’ve made. Then I’ll be happy. Then also, if you get past 10 years, you get benefits from the league for your family until they are 23 or so, if you have kids.

Hightower: When I entered the league I had a certain number, you know, a couple million. Now it’s about living a certain lifestyle and providing that for my family.

Cofield: I think age and ability play more into retirement than a certain dollar figure. Happiness outweighs account balance every time. And I'm happy playing football.

Williams: I don’t think it’s a dollar figure. The way I see it, there are certain people that say, I want to play this game until I can’t anymore, I want to play for the rest of life, but no one can. I want to play until I hit my peak and I’m maintaining my peak, then there will be a decline, and I’ll start to notice that decline and so will everyone else. At that point, I will walk away from the game not just because of the physical [skill] decline, but because I want to run around with my kids and play sports with them. It is a dangerous game, and they say the injury rate is 100 percent. I want to be healthy when I’m finished.

I guarantee it wasn’t something where he just decided one day to stop. He was thinking about it for a while. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) "I guarantee it wasn’t something where he just decided one day to stop. He was thinking about it for a while." (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

5. Do you believe that 25 years from now your mental faculties will be affected by having played football?

Winston: Sure. A hundred percent. And not just in a cognitive way, but the entire way of life. Physically, Mentally. We know it's not going to be perfect. But I feel comfortable with the risks. I'm willing to take the risk.

Brown: No, I don’t think so. I haven’t had any concussions or any kind of trauma or anything like that. So I don’t think anything will be affected.

u2018We Chose This Professionu2019
Seahawks All-Pro Richard Sherman on the personal risks players assume in a sport with violence at its core.
Schwartz: I know my wife is scared of that. I try not to think about it. It’s a risk of playing this game. Mentally I’m still just as sharp and haven’t had a concussion in my career. For every scary story about CTE, there are plenty of stories of guys who leave the game and are successful off the field without any side effects. I try to think about that. 

Long: If I was a betting man, I'd say yes. Your brain isn't made for your head to run into stuff. Your brain moves around, and it's not supposed to move around violently like that. Whether it's how coherent you are, how alert you are, you just don't know. But honestly, my barometer is my dad [Hall of Fame former Raider Howie Long]. He is as sharp as any 55-year-old person I know. He played a violent 13 years in the NFL. The game was rougher then. Physically, from the neck down, he's pretty shot. But mentally he's all there. He's never spaced out. So I look at him, and I'm encouraged. But I don't really know. No one knows.

Hightower: I’ve had those thoughts in relation to my knee and being able to walk when I’m older, but not about my brain, because I haven’t had concussions. My prayer is that it doesn’t happen. Smoking predisposes you to cancer, but not everyone who smokes gets cancer. No one can say that because I played football I’m going to have these problems. But I’m not blind to the fact that there’s a chance there will be problems.

Hawk: I don’t believe that now. I’m definitely more aware now of anything going on with my head or any hits I take. [When I was younger] I didn’t care; I never felt like there was ever anything to worry about. I try to look at all sides, and there is so much we don’t know. I don’t want to talk like nothing affects me, but I haven’t shown any signs. If I were one of those guys who had a big history of concussions and had trouble coming back, I would probably be worried. I’m not too worried about that right now. The rest of my body, yeah, there are definitely going to be things I struggle with. But you can get a hip replacement or a knee replacement. You can’t replace your brain.

Cofield: I don't believe so. I have no concussion history besides a JV basketball ‎incident. And I feel great from the neck up. I'm more worried about my joints, etc.

Williams: No, I don’t think so. I’ve never had a concussion. There might have been some times where I got up and felt off balance, but I can count those moments on one hand, using two fingers. One time, when I first started playing ball—I guess it was sixth grade—I got hit and got up and everything was yellow. I don’t know what that meant, but it faded after a while and I was fine. I could think straight; there never was a moment when I had mental fog. I think some people are more prone to concussions than other people. I think maybe it could happen, but I don’t think it’s likely the way I play the game. Hopefully it doesn’t happen. I’m praying it doesn’t happen. You never know. But 25 years from now, I think I’ll be alright.

Bethea: It’s a tough question. I’m always going to look on the positive side and say, no, I’m going to be fine. I’m going to do whatever I need to do to keep my brain working, whether it’s reading or doing different brain exercises. God forbid I’m wrong.

Can football change? Will the sport become safer? How are concussions impacting the game’s future?

Introducing an in-depth series where we tackle those questions, starting at high schools and continuing into college and the NFL.


6. Is the NFL doing enough about the issue of head trauma?

Williams: I can’t say for certain. If you were asking my opinion, I think this game generates a lot of money, and I’m not sure how much of that money is going to making the game safer as opposed to marketing the game and making it more popular. I’m not sure what the ratio is. And as crazy as technology is today, the helmet hasn’t changed that much. I don’t know how much research is devoted into trying to design a safer helmet.

Hightower: Enough is relative. The more education that comes out, the more strides they’re able to make. There are steps being taken in terms of the concussion protocols. Guys who played in the ’70s would have greatly benefited from these rules. You’d like to see those guys being well taken care of today.

Schwartz: I don’t know what else they can do. The game is violent. We now know the risks. None of us can say we don’t know what we signed up for. I think it’s up to the players in certain cases to be responsible and take themselves out when they get concussed. But then again, we are competitors and want to play. I get why players don’t always report them.

Brown: They’re trying to take the head out of the game more and more with new rules and regulations. They are trying. I think it is enough to an extent. You’re not allowed to lead with the head or to use the helmet as a battering ram or weapon. You’re going to have accidents—it’s an intense sport played at high speeds. You’re not going to be able to completely take it out, but they’re trying.

Hawk: I think so. I think they have been trying everything they can, but there is never going to be a foolproof thing, because it is up to us as players. Athletic trainers or coaches or anyone on the sidelines can’t always tell, unless a guy gets knocked out cold, and that doesn’t happen that often. And not only in games but in practice, too. If a guy blacks out for a couple seconds or gets a little wobbly, you can’t see that from the sidelines always. It’s happening in the trenches, and in the middle of the pile, and guys can play it off. If guys aren’t going to be honest, there’s no way of attending to every single one. There will never be a foolproof plan. It’s up to us as players. The culture is changing, which is a good thing. They’re not ostracized if they let someone know they may have a concussion. I’ve never seen a coach or a doctor try to throw someone back in; it’s not like the movies. But how often are guys reporting? They told us the numbers of concussions are down in the league. Who knows? Reported ones, sure. But that doesn’t mean anything to me. Some guys are scared, because we have big-time players sitting out a couple games for a concussion, and while they’re out, someone takes their job. We see it all throughout the league. Especially for a rookie or a bubble guy who really wants to make his team, that’s a big deal on their minds.

Cofield: I can't possibly say what's enough but I can definitely see a difference in the protocol even since I arrived in the league. Even we as players are quick to notify trainers when a teammate or opponent seems impaired‎.

Bethea: The league can do more. The NFL has the ability and the resources to do anything it wants to do. Unlimited resources for research and technology. I’m not saying they’re not doing anything, but I have to believe there’s more they can do. 

"My father played a violent 13 years in the NFL. Physically, from the neck down, he's pretty shot. But mentally, he's all there." Photo from 2008. (Al Tielemans/SI) "My father played a violent 13 years in the NFL. Physically, from the neck down, he's pretty shot. But mentally, he's all there." Photo from 2008. (Al Tielemans/SI)

7. Do you ever have fear on the football field?

Long: I do fear that in one play, everything you work for can be over. But physical fear? No.

Winston: No. Not at all. I've just never felt that way.

Hawk: No. I think everyone has a healthy amount of, I wouldn’t call it fear, but healthy, anxious energy. I try to work as hard as I can during the week to be healthy and on the field on Sundays. But football has a lot of moving parts, and there’s luck involved. I wouldn’t say I have a fear, though, of bad things happening.

Schwartz: Can’t play this game with fear. You will play slower, and hurt yourself or someone else.

Cofield: Fear of head trauma? Absolutely not. 

Williams: I have Spidey senses on the field, but I don’t think I have fear. Sometimes someone might be diving at me a certain way, and I catch it out of my peripheral vision, and I do something to avoid it because I feel like if I don’t, I might get injured. I don’t think I am fearful on the field. As far as a game-to-game fear of getting injured, I don’t necessarily feel that.

Bethea: You can’t play football thinking you’re going to get hurt. That’s not only football, that’s with anything. You could be up there giving a speech in front of 1,000 people and if you’re up there thinking, oh man this speech isn’t going well, then it won't.

Hightower: Off the field, you're watching film and you see yourself get twisted up and you think about certain things. But when you're playing, things happen so quickly you don't have time to be afraid. 

8. Final thoughts?

Hawk: I don’t fault Chris for anything he’s doing. A lot of people will say he’ll regret it and try to come back, but I guarantee it wasn’t something where he just decided one day to stop. He was thinking about it for a while. I’m sure it is going to be weird for a while, but he’ll move on. I can respect when a guy can leave something he is so passionate about, for better quality of life.

Schwartz: I just think this Borland situation is very unique and brings up some great dialogue. Like I said, I respect his tough decision. It couldn’t have been easy. I also don’t think the NFL is going away anytime soon. Too many guys are ready to play. 

Brown: I feel like his situation is his situation. He made the decision that was best for himself. I’m not going to argue with him. I hope it doesn’t deter parents from letting their kids play the game. Kids are going to get roughed up, but if they’re taught properly, they will be safe on the field. I hope more kids keep continuing to play football and keep it going.

Williams: A big part of health and safety is also the kind of culture we are building around the game. When I step on the field, no matter who my opponent is, and as much as all my fans are telling me, “you need to hate the Eagles,” I don’t hate anybody in an Eagles uniform. I respect my opponents because they are risking their health on the field every day. I have a respect for the game and for the people who make the game what it is. I don’t play with hate in my heart, or to injure people. I pray before every game that people remember why they are playing the game, and not those negative feelings, because I think sometimes that's where injuries come from. Injury prevention is in terms of what we do with the helmet, but also the culture surrounding the game, and I think that’s just as important.

Winston: The game's not easy. Walking away from the game's not easy. It's an intoxicating thing. We all have to ask ourselves: 'Do we want to keep playing? Do we want to take the risks?' For me, I want to. For Chris, it sounds like he didn't.

Long: Am I sure I'm going to have cognitive problems? No, but I know enough about the risks that I'm comfortable with them. I don't think money or fame will ever be the driving force for me, and for Chris, it sure seems like he wasn't concerned with those either.

• THE MMQB PODCAST: Andy Benoit on Borland, free agency and the 2015 running back class

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