SANTA CLARA – “How important is football to you?”
It’s perhaps the most frequently asked question in the run-up to the NFL draft and usually is directed at two disparate groups: knuckleheads with off-field issues who worry general managers about possibly wasting a pick and smart guys from really good schools like Stanford who worry general managers about possibly wasting a pick.
In the latter category, the subtext seems to be: Are you going to decide that playing through twisted ankles and sprained shoulders while sitting through endless, monotonous meetings isn’t for you and become a venture capitalist instead?
Chris Borland, by all accounts and observations, wasn’t in either group.
The Wisconsin linebacker was the squeaky clean, lunch-pail, high-effort player with the 5-foot-11 frame of an average Joe but who made tackles like the second coming of Ray Lewis.
Too genteel for football? No, that’s not Borland, whose game centered on smarts and study habits, yes, but also on grit, hustle and sheer will. He is one of seven kids, including six rough-and-tumble, sports-playing brothers, one of whom has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If he had concerns about his health, it didn’t show in his play. Borland was an electrified pinball on defense, recording 100 or more tackles in three consecutive years at Wisconsin, setting a Big Ten Conference record with 15 forced fumbles in his career and then leading the 49ers in tackles as a rookie – despite starting just eight games. He played the way talent evaluators want prospects to play: He was aggressive and fearless.
Which is why his decision to retire at age 24 has been such a thunderbolt across the league.
Quarterback Jake Locker announced his retirement last week at age 26. But Locker, a former first-round pick, had been a disappointment and was a free agent.
Borland was poised to become a star. Guys like him don’t walk away from the nation’s most popular and most lucrative sport. Heck, guys barely clinging to roster spots don’t willingly leave the game at age 24.
How big was his announcement? It prompted the NFL, 14 hours later, to issue a press release that tried to allay concerns, articulated by Borland to ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” about the long-term effects of head trauma in the sport.
“By any measure, football has never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL senior vice president of health and safety policy. “Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year downward trend.”
Packers executive Eliot Wolf also dismissed any notion that Borland’s decision was a death knell for the NFL.
“Anyone worried about the future of football should see the amount of calls & emails we get from kids literally begging to get into pro days,” Wolf wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
The 49ers need only make a few phone calls and there would be dozens of free-agent linebackers flocking to Santa Clara, eager to take Borland’s place on the roster.
But none of them are as good as Borland. No one in his situation ever has walked away from the sport. In the Darwinian NFL, it’s the game that determines who plays and who does not.
Borland flipped that. The game would have embraced him, would have paid him millions of dollars over time and would have made him a household name. He might still accomplish the latter.
In retiring from the NFL at age 24, Borland has supplied more reinforcement to any parent questioning whether his or her child should play organized football and has given more pause to any young player wondering if he would be safer doing something else.
“How important is football to you?”
Chris Borland’s answer was clear: Not more important than his health.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.