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Chris Borland's Retirement an Uncommon Choice—but One NFL Players Understand

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterMarch 18, 2015

Kelley L. Cox/USA Today

When a young player voluntarily walks away from the NFL—from the game, from the money, from the unique opportunities that are created in this league—we should all take notice.

I was surprised, even shocked a bit, when it was revealed Monday that San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired at age 24 after just one year of pro ball, citing his concerns about the head injuries that come with playing.

The news led me to interview a number of my fellow NFL veterans, asking them whether they still think the rewards of playing pro ball outweigh the risks. Most leaned toward saying, "Yes," and I don't think this is the beginning of the end for the NFL. But Borland's decision definitely has heightened awareness that the balance could be shifting.   

"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health. From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk," Borland told Outside the Lines, via ESPN.com's Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

This isn't an older vet, a beaten-down linebacker being forced out of the league due to declining skills, a lack of speed or low-level production. This isn't a player who can be easily replaced by a younger, faster and cheaper version in the draft.

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That's usually the way it goes down; the NFL retires you as a player. The league ushers you out the back door. The party is over.

That's just not the case with Borland or Patrick Willis, Jason Worilds and Jake Locker—players who left the game, the opportunities and the future earnings in the past two weeks.

But is this a trend? Is it a peek into the future of the game, when players—now more educated than ever on the health risks with pro ball—decide to leave the cash on the table and just walk away from the NFL in the interest of their health? 

"This is the first time I can remember NFL players retiring," former NFL safety Rich Coady said. "And I mean really retiring, not the 'no one will sign me so I will retire' type of thing."

In considering the effects of head injuries, players are more aware than ever because the NFL has finally come to its senses. The league isn't hiding information on concussions the way it once did, and players could start retiring early as a consequence.

In my time, concussions—though serious—weren't a topic of discussion. Once you passed a simple baseline test after a hard hit to the head, you were back on the field. It was that simple. There were no independent neurologists at stadiums making the call. It was your word versus the trainers' and team doctors'.

And guys played through those concussions. 

Former wide receiver Rashied Davis played seven years for the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, and he contributed on special teams. That's where you see a disproportionate number of high-speed collisions and nasty hits. It's a dangerous aspect to the game.

ANDY KING/Associated Press

Davis, who called football his "oasis," said he would do it all over again, but he would have preferred to have the information on concussions to make his own decisions on his playing career.

"Now that the information is coming out, and it's more easily accessible, I think there will be a lot more guys that decide to give the game up than in the past," said Davis, who played from 2005 to 2011.

The risks involved with playing in this league are no secret. The speed is lightning fast, the collisions can resemble car accidents and players will get busted up. Knees, shoulders, etc. If you play for a long time in the NFL, your body will break down, and those future health concerns are lying in the weeds to meet you down the road in your late 30s and early 40s.

You might be in some pain, the headaches could linger and you most likely will be forced to adjust your post-football lifestyle. The punishment adds up over time, and there is always the possibility of lifelong effects, from joint problems to brain damage.

But players understand the risks and are willing to make health sacrifices to play this game, compete and take advantage of the rewards.

"Concussions, arthritis, all that," Seahawks cornerback Will Blackmon said. "There's a 100 percent chance you will get hurt playing football. We all know that. Every time you get hurt, it will change your body in one way, shape or form."

That's an honest statement from Blackmon and one that resonates with players. The injuries are going to happen, and bodies will get worn down while guys continue to push the envelope to play the game they love.

It's a repetitive cycle that includes rehab, treatment and more collisions on the field.

New York Giants offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz has been rehabbing a foot injury this offseason that limited his playing time in 2014, and the six-year veteran understands the importance of erasing fear of injuries. That allows you to play fast while protecting yourself and others on the field.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Schwartz acknowledges the risks that come with the game's benefits.

"You have to kind of accept what's going to happen in order to play," said Schwartz. "This game is too tough to play with doubt in your mind. It's too taxing on your body, mentally and physically, to have doubts."

All the players I talked to commented on the courage Borland displayed to step away from the game and leave on his own terms. That's something we don't see often in this league.

Maybe it will spark a trend, and we will see more players walking away early to preserve their health while getting a jump-start on real life outside of football. But I also know so many guys who will play this game until they are told it's time to go. They love it. And this makes me believe the NFL is in no danger.   

For Borland, the rewards didn't outweigh the risks. And that was his decision. For others, including myself, the rewards did come first.

But was it worth it? That's a question every player will have to answer in his post-career journey. For me, it was. And I have no problem saying I would do it all over again. 

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.

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