The Chris Borland Effect: He's Changed His Future, but Did He Change the NFL's?September 1, 2016
ATLANTA — The man who may or may not have changed football forever is at the center of a 5,000-seat soccer stadium that on this night hosts a total of four fans. He juggles a soccer ball 10 times in a row. Foot to knee, knee to foot, foot to knee.
There is no applause. No "Jump Around" fueling his adrenaline. The only soundtrack for players here is the buzzing of a highway clashing with the squawking of birds along a trim of woods. This is no Camp Randall, no Levi's Stadium. No autograph requests, no adulation, no paycheck await him—only a cool beer in the bar adjacent to Atlanta Silverbacks Park.
A conversation breaks out about 15 yards away. An eclectic group speaks English, Spanish and French to each other. One is a collegiate soccer player from a nearby school who stays sharp by playing in the six-on-six co-ed league here.
"The culture here in America," he insists, "is all football."
A friend challenges that assertion. A light bulb goes off.
"You know what? I just read a survey where more parents want their kids to play soccer. This is so much safer! You're right. And it's competitive."
Another voice chimes in. "And NFL players are, get this, retiring early from football."
"Yeah! That's true. They are!"
The group heads to the exit, oblivious to the fact that the man who subconsciously shaped this conversation is right there—with pineapple-sized calves and a Wisconsin Badgers shirt over a torso that could still send ball-carriers into tomorrow—now booting a kick into the mesh.
They walk right past Chris Borland.
In March 2015, Borland had everyone's attention. That's when he walked away from the NFL at 24 because of concussion concerns.
The more he learned about head trauma—the more he came to believe that the NFL was borderline criminal in how it handled concussions—the more he realized he wanted to be a functioning adult at 40, 50, 60 years old.
So what is the Chris Borland Effect?
A year-and-a-half later, what came of all that attention? Did his decision, on the heels of the volcanic League of Denial, inherently change the No. 1 sport in America?
Football has for so long been a drug impossible to kick. Players are beaten, bloodied, broken and, finally, pried off the field. Once they do retire, so many slip into an abyss of depression. And here was a stud linebacker telling the NFL, "Thanks, but no thanks."
Borland never, not once, heard from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and harbors no ill will toward the man he says everyone "loves to hate."
He is surprised the players union never called.
"Ten thousand dollars in union dues," he says, "and I don't get a phone call. If I were running a union and a player walked away because of the most pressing medical need of my workforce, I would pick up the phone."
Not once? "Complete silence."
Translation: The NFL and NFLPA are marching along as if everything is just fine. And, hey, why not? League revenue skyrocketed to $13 billion last year, per howmuch.net, a different galaxy than MLB ($9.5B), the NBA ($4.8B) and the NHL ($3.7B).
This sport remains intoxicating as ever, set to dominate America's attention yet again.
Yet Borland might've cracked a fragile foundation.
His decision still casts a pall over football.
This offseason alone, 13 players retired at 30 or younger. Gone is Calvin Johnson, a freak receiver in his prime. Gone is Marshawn Lynch, who was beast-moding his way into Canton. Gone is another first-year player in A.J. Tarpley.
Borland doesn't bang a fist on a table and demand justice. He speaks delicately…with biting conviction. He smiles softly…never scowling. His hair isn't on fire…it's receding faster than a "Heads Up Football" claim. He's apathetic toward the existence of football. Anyone who wants to play football, please, by all means: Play. Go. Have fun.
"It's a free country," he says.
But he does want the truth to spread, because he knows the NFL is in no rush to spread it.
"They're so far from owning it," Borland says. "There are a million things they could do. I don't know if you look to the coal industry to address black lung appropriately. You're not going to look to sugar to address diabetes.
"The NFL will never fully, willfully dump all the information on the public."
But Borland did, and Borland will. That's the Borland Effect.
Past a strip of sketchy strip malls and fast-food chains on Buford Highway is Borland's hand-picked restaurant for tonight. Grungy on the outside, Nam Phuong is calm on the inside. The Vietnamese menu is endless, but since the Borland Bros have a soccer game in two hours, Chris only orders egg rolls. His big brother orders beef stew.
"Are you sure about that?" cautions Chris, an eyebrow raised. "Your food might come up later."
Matt Borland shakes his head. Please. He played at Wittenberg University. The dude knows what he can handle.
Soccer was Chris' first love, too. Thinking in "triangles," that one pass led to another pass, is part of what fed his instincts at linebacker.
"A great sport for kids to play," he says.
"On multiple levels."
Then, something strange happens. Borland does not dive into a soliloquy on why soccer is superior. The exact opposite.
He still gets our country's insatiable appetite for football. The high is unparalleled. Violence is binding.
It's hard for Borland to explain this to friends.
If you're a power forward in basketball and V-cut and turn the ball over, you're embarrassed. Maybe the cheerleader in the first row doesn't text you back. If you're a middle linebacker, he asks rhetorically, and the strong safety forgets to shout "Crack!"? A 275-pound tight end clocks you in the jaw.
"I might not eat solid food for eight weeks," Borland says. "It's a different level of being a good teammate."
Suddenly, in his booth, Borland is overwhelmed by a flashback: He's in Madison, Wisconsin. Facing Iowa. Third-and-short. And his film study all week tells him a ball-carrier is running through his gap. He knows for a fact he's faster, stronger, more athletic than the player assigned to block him, commits and drills the back to the tune of 80,000 or so screaming fans.
"That one moment," he says, "if you could bottle that and sell it, it's unbelievable.
"It's barbaric. There's raw emotion. More so than any other sport, you can just let it go."
The brotherhood in football is different. Friends inspire each other to grit through sprains, breaks, headaches—weekly—for one common purpose.
When Borland deleted this all from his life, sure, he was in a funk. For about two months, he yearned for those collisions. But he moved on.
The science behind concussions trumped all when Borland learned that the brain in a skull is basically a yolk in an egg, "unfastened," slushing around for 70 snaps a game. So each day now, Borland redefines himself.
He travels. Borland took a seven-and-a-half-week trip to Europe, shuttling from Ireland to Scotland to Germany to Sweden to Croatia to Italy to France. He interned. Borland moved to Atlanta to live with his brother and work at the Carter Center, former President Jimmy Carter's nonprofit organization, from to May to July. He advocates. Borland partnered with Gridiron Greats to aid former players and The Concussion Legacy Foundation to inform current and future players.
Speaking at conferences and colleges, he gives details the NFL does not.
Next week, it's off to Oregon State, where Borland will work in life skills, academic advising and community service while also pursuing a 49-credit master's degree in political science, sociology and kinesiology. His goal is to launch an Eagle Scout-like program back in Kettering, Ohio, that gets high school athletes immersed in the community.
He plays soccer, basketball and Frisbee golf. His Big Ten-level adrenaline still pumps. At his game on this night, he softly taps one shot to the goalkeeper and then, seeking revenge 30 seconds later, blasts his next shot 10 feet over the crossbar into the bleachers.
He lost weight. He's a Jeopardy star. He reads constantly. Last month, Borland ripped through the Black Gods of the Asphalt, a book that captures the purity of sport.
And his phone still rings daily. Ex-players and ex-players' wives reach out to Borland to discuss their dire situations. Last week, the wife of deceased Vikings linebacker Rip Hawkins called him in tears to discuss CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
Borland is off the drug of football. Last season, he didn't watch one second of one game. Really. He quit football cold turkey.
"It has to be, right?" he says. "I can't support it."
His reasoning is simple.
"It causes dementia, basically."
His question must be answered. It's been on Borland's mind all dinner.
For an hour, war stories are shared. The 30 concussions Borland suffered, the stars, the dizziness, the time I blacked out in high school football.
"How do you reconcile?" Borland asks. "It seems like you have some concerns, but you cover football."
The question isn't answered directly. Fifteen minutes later, Borland tries again.
"You never answered the question: How do you reconcile covering football?"
This is a special game. This is also a flawed game.
No player has ever forced anyone associated with football—players, coaches, reporters, moms, dads, fans—to soul-search quite like Borland, the one who turned the sparks of CTE knowledge into a forest fire. Repetitive brain trauma has been linked to depression, memory loss, erratic behavior, dementia, even suicide. The disease has been discovered in 90 of the 94 NFL players' brains studied at Boston University's CTE Center.
Borland feels OK. Thinks he's OK. But he has no peace of mind, admitting he packed in as much contact as he could in five years at Wisconsin.
So, yes, he has a few things to say.
For one, he wants those in power to be honest. Goodell won't be holding a CTE press conference any faster than Marlboro will print ads of smokers' lungs, but what about the players union? In 2012, Borland says, the NFLPA was set to release a 94-page document to players that detailed the long-term effects of concussions.
That document, written a year before League of Denial, never saw the light of day.
"It was too damning," he says. "It revealed too much. The whole intent was to inform players…and players don't see it."
The NFLPA, contacted by Bleacher Report, wouldn't verify the existence of a document.
Borland says he got hold of a copy after he retired and was incensed. Right here was everything he learned on his own. Right here was information that could've informed players and saved lives. Even in his librarian tone, Borland is pissed.
"Everything that was predicted in 2012 has come to fruition in 2016," he says.
He offers two immediate solutions. First, he says children should not play tackle football. Period. Strapping five-year-olds "in armor," to him, is asinine. Second, the NFL must empathize with former players.
"People love these guys when they're active," he says, "and then they're thrown away when they're done being used. Particularly guys from the '50s, '60s and '70s."
Not that he's holding his breath. He sees the same Heads Up Football ads you do. The league and USA Football say "Heads Up" is working, often citing a 2015 independent study that concussions were reduced by 30 percent and injuries by 76 percent…only for that exact study to be proven false, as the New York Times reported.
Turns out, Heads Up hasn't affected the number of concussions much at all. Borland's voice picks up.
"To insinuate that an inherently dangerous activity can be done safely is dishonest," he says. "A lot of people making the claims, I hope they're just naive. I hope they don't know better and are doing it anyway. To say there's a place to put your head that prevents brain injury is absurd.
"You can set your watch to when they make a claim, and a few years later, OK, it's redacted. Sorry to the kids who got concussed in that time frame while they were listening to us. … You can exhaust yourself looking at everything they did that's not right. They need those consumers. They need five-year-olds to have a football in their hands so they become fans when they're older and buy the product.
"They're not going to stop the campaigns—truth be damned."
So let's pretend for a moment. Let's pretend that everyone understands the full effects of CTE. Moms. Sons. Everyone. What does the NFL workforce resemble then? He doesn't hesitate.
"I think the labor force will be more—I mean, it already is—it'll be more so poor kids," Borland says. "When you look at the socioeconomic demographics of a NFL team, I think that's where we are today. In places where people read hardcover books and eat sushi, they're not signing a five-year-old up to tackle another five-year-old."
And, with that, it's time to play soccer.
He hugs Mom. Shakes Dad's hand. Poses for photos with some of the 75 to 100 people in attendance.
Then, Chris Borland takes his seat inside the Carter Center auditorium for a viewing of Requiem for a Running Back. The devastating documentary is produced by Rebecca Carpenter, the daughter of former NFL player/coach Lew Carpenter.
Her entire life, Rebecca never knew why her father's temperament changed, why he became so distant, so different, only to discover after his death that he had CTE. Each scene in Requiem is more chilling than the last.
• As BU neuropathologist Ann McKee explains this "slow, insidious, creeping" disease to her, Rebecca breaks down in tears.
• Former NFL tight end John Hilton gives a heartbreaking interview. Fighting like hell, he's unable to articulate his thoughts two mumbling words at a time before finally saying, "I forget…"
• The wife of Ray Easterling, a Falcons safety in the '70s who killed himself in 2012, says it felt like she was living "with a rattlesnake. … I could never let down my guard."
• Rebecca's sister tells the story of their father, once peaceful, shoving coat cases against the front door so his wife wouldn't be able to enter.
• Greg Lens, a defensive tackle in the '70s, once held a pistol to his wife's head in the middle of the night, spent time at seven different nursing homes with his body strapped to a bed at night, was moved to a psychiatric unit and then, two weeks in, died of pneumonia.
• And there's the wife of former Bear Mike Pyle saying, "You wake up and think 'I don't have a husband anymore.'"
The crux of Requiem is that football changes the lives of families for the better—providing thrills, memories, a lifestyle—yet also haunts them later in life. Once it's finished, Borland joins Chris Nowinski, the co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, for a panel discussion. Borland explains that the nature of football forces players to play through pain. A threshold for pain is a skill, no different than running a route or throwing a pass.
"Your job is to strike people with a high level of force," he says. "You'll see stars or be dazed. You can't show pain or injury."
This is a "dose-response" issue, Nowinski adds, exactly like smoking/lung cancer and sunburns/skin cancer. Having children hit each other 800 times is "a recipe for CTE."
The two then take questions from the audience with microphones set up near the front of the stage.
To the left is a familiar face: longtime NFL player and coach Dan Reeves. He's frustrated. Fidgety. Reeves raises his hand, pulls it down, starts to walk toward the mic and instead turns around to exit out of the back door. To the right, someone who played for Lew Carpenter refers to Goodell as "the redheaded idiot" and says players past and present are treated like "a piece of meat."
The consensus here? Something must change.
After a lively Q&A, the founder of Wise Up, a concussion foundation, stands near the door. Al Wallace's son-in-law is only 42 years old but is already spiraling out of control. Kevin Drake, a quarterback/wide receiver at UAB, suffered 10-plus concussions and now can't sleep for days, suffering memory loss and deep depression.
"We saw him go downhill more last year than ever before," Wallace says. "We get concerned about suicide. We get concerned if he'd hurt my daughters or the kids."
Wallace is on a mission to ban tackle football for anyone under 14 years old in Alabama.
"We'll be crucified," he says. "But we believe in it."
The man who left the Carter Center in a huff, Reeves, is nowhere to be found afterward but is reached by phone one week later. He, too, has something to say. Reeves empathizes with Rebecca Carpenter, truly, but he was in football for 39 years himself and would do it all over again "in a heartbeat." Can football be safer? No doubt. Reeves encouraged his own son to play flag football until ninth grade.
But he cannot stand wars against football. Too many lessons are learned. His worst fear is that films like this will multiply and spur a generation of kids glued to iPhones.
"Are we going to stop driving cars?" Reeves asks. "How many people are killed driving cars? We have lessons for them. They take driver's ed. It doesn't stop the possibility of hurting yourself.
"I have too much love for football and think it's too good for our country."
Reeves himself had 14 knee operations and God knows how many concussions but feels fine at 72. And no way he could've given his family the life they have, he adds, working on a farm in Georgia.
The Chris Borland Effect is real. Films like this hit home. Still, Reeves likely speaks for millions in this country, too.
"Some of the things that I would've said," Reeves adds, "would've contradicted what she said. It's not an argument. It's a feeling. I could relate so well to Lew. There's no good way of dying. My dad never played football, but he died from a stroke.
"I thought it was a great film, but I don't want people to watch these and say, 'Hey, I'm not letting my kids play.' Football is so much like life.
"We need it."
The only beams of light illuminate from televisions overhead. There's a preseason game on—the local Falcons at the Browns—but nobody here gives a damn.
Friends and family gather at Hand in Hand bar after the film to decompress.
In a back corner is the Borland Family, smiling, laughing, story after story.
Chris is three days away from running a half-marathon in Columbus, Ohio, and he's starting to wonder if he trained enough. Oh, he once ran a full marathon…but that took him four-and-a-half hours. Through that hilly slog in San Francisco, Borland walked for stretches. He is now convinced there's no such thing as runner's high.
Near the bar is Nowinski, a man who has dedicated his life to concussion awareness. He sips a beer, grins and says he's grateful Borland is willing to speak up. Soon, he expects everyone to fully understand the direct causation between football and CTE.
"We'll have papers coming out next year," he says, "that'll really open up some eyes."
About an hour later, a former college football player is blunt. He saw the film. Loved the film. But he's still convinced players will risk all for the NFL. If it means escaping the hood? No doubt about it.
Nobody here knows what the future holds for football, but they do know Chris Borland rocked everyone's world in 2015. Never before did a player so young, so talented step away—and sacrifice so much money doing so.
Borland is told he could've been a rich man. He laughs and says playing solely for money is "perverse" while adding he knows players "prepared to die" for football.
Borland may dismiss the Chris Borland Effect, but make no mistake—there is an effect.
We're seeing it. Retirements continue. Awareness increases.
While waiting to order his mother an iced tea at the bar, Borland looks inward.
"Raising awareness is great," he says, "but hopefully something comes out of it."
He pays for the drink, returns to his stool and doesn't look back. Borland is redefining himself.
One question remains: Will football need to?
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @TyDunne.