#360USA: Chris Borland retirement a reminder of NFL’s biggest challenge

Steve Brenner 10:22 23/03/2015
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Borland retired from football at the age of just 24 for fear of suffering head injuries after he finished the game.

The news came as a shock yet was anyone really surprised? Chris Borland, one of the rookies of the year and San Francisco 49ers linebacker, called time on his NFL career last week at the sprightly young age of just 24.

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Fearful of receiving the kind of brutal head injury which has seen a depressing swathe of former players either kill themselves or struggle through life with a host of physical and mental problems, Borland bravely took his future into his own hands.

Of course, it’s a massive call. He was on a four-year, $3 million contract with the 49ers. And, most poignantly, he hadn’t been the victim of a series of concussions. Once playing soccer as a child, the other one in his high school days.

At 5ft 11ins, he is small for a linebacker, a position which sees a lot of action. Yet Borland had already seen enough. He had watched on grimacing with the rest of us as the NFL, back in 2013, agreed to pay out $765 million to players and their families after settling a lawsuit which accused the governing body of deliberately concealing evidence of the link between football-related head injuries and long-term neurological damage.

They had scandalously refutedthe claims in the past. But no more. The evidence was too compelling, too damaging, too gut-wrenching.

Team-mate and fellow linebacker Patrick Willis, 30, announced his decision to turn his back on the game just days earlier. Concussions are finally being treated with the respect they deserve. Doctors now observe the play and make calls as to when and how players should be treated.

Progress in coaching kids is being made too with the Heads Up Football initiative ensuring coaches are taught the correct, and safe, ways for young children to make tackles and to take hits. It remains, however, pro football’s white elephant in the room.

Back in the day, you got hit, your bell was rung but hey, just get up boy and start again. Anything less and you were deemed as soft as ice cream on a hot sunny day. Yet there have been too many dark days in recent memory to ignore the stats and information any more.

The suicide of Junior Seau is widely acknowledged as a tragic tipping point. The popular San Diego Chargers linebacker shot himself in the chest at the age of 43. The autopsy of his brain confirmed Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a condition which had been found in other deceased NFL stars.

Dave Duerson wrote in a suicide note about his desire to have his brain donated to a research centre, such was the damage inflicted during his blood stained years in the game. Depression, dementia and death were all fears of Borland who commendably jumped before he was hit by another NFL freight train.

Yet will this brave, bold call by one of football’s leading lights force the hand of others? Considering the average career of an American football player is under four years, that’s debatable. They will know how lucky they are to be dining at the top table in the first place.

The bravado shown during the season will lock many into living the dream for as long as possible. Borland however, has thrown a suggestive cat among the pigeons. He wrote a letter to his parents before the start of last season which signaled his intentions.

“Somebody said we’re at the beginning of the beginning, and that might be true,” Jeff Borland, Chris’s father , told the New York Times.

“It was a relief that after one more season, he would no longer be taking the physical abuse. For him to have reached the end of the season having the success he had, to have not changed his mind, I have to give him credit. It was not a money decision.”

“While unexpected, we certainly respect Chris’s decision,” Trent Baalke, the 49ers general manager, added. “From speaking with Chris, it was evident that he had put a great deal of thought into it.”

It will make everyone else think too. From the six year-old dreaming of the Super Bowl to the up-and-coming stars from the college ranks, there is a real fear of what lies ahead.

Changes implemented in the youth ranks may never filter into the professional game. The NFL is a beast which obeys its own rules.

What’s certain though is this: football, as we know it, may never be the same again.

MLS chiefs have been delighted with the opening to their landmark 20th season with impressive crowds cheering on the likes of Kaka at Orlando and David Villa at NYCFC.

The game is booming here yet although there is no pyramid League structure seen in Europe, good work is still being done at other levels. In the NASL, the division below MLS, the New York Cosmos continue to shine a light for their star-laden backstory which includes the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.

Last week the Cosmos, who include Real Madrid legend Raul, announced they would be heading to Cuba in June to play the national team. They will become the first American team in 16 years to play on Cuban soil.

The Cosmos may be out of the limelight – yet they’re still pushing boundaries.

They don’t call it March Madness for nothing.

The college basketball championships grips the US at this time every year but it’s fair to say Georgia State coach Ron Hunter is having a wild old time of his own.

Already being wheeled around after tearing his Achilles celebrating his side’s conference championship, the scenes which followed son RJ’s brilliant three pointer with 2.7 seconds remaining to seal a shock win over No3 seed Baylor were every bit as eventful.

As the shot sunk into the net, Hunter senior’s emotions sent him tumbling off his chair. It looked comical but he didn’t care.

“We’re Cinderella but I don’t know if I can get the glass slipper on my foot, “ he said.

While some will undoubtedly see it as bravery, others will surely question the wisdom of Brian Vickers continuing his NASCAR career after a series of physical setbacks. The 31-year-old missed the weekend Spring Cup Series in California following another recurrence of blood clots – something which he has battled since 2010 and has forced him out of four events.

Furthermore, Vickers missed the first two races of the season after undergoing heart surgery in December because his body was rejecting a patch inserted in his heart at the start of the problem to help keep the clots at bay. The levels of passion and desire shown are nothing short of inspirational.

How long though before someone pulls him to one side and, sadly, says enough is enough?

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