Chris Borland was never supposed to make it this far. A two-star recruit in high school, and the 77th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, Borland had always demonstrated an ability to do the impossible; he was the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year and won NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors as a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers.
But last Friday, Borland finally ran into a challenge even he couldn’t overcome: Reconciling the risks of playing in the NFL with the rewards. Citing concerns over the effects of head trauma, he told the 49ers he was retiring at the age of 24, after just one season in the pros. Borland became the latest in a series of surprising retirements this offseason, but his isn’t just the most unexpected, it’s also the most impactful – not because of what it says about the fear of brain injuries in football, but because of what it says about the most powerful substance on Earth: Money.
On March 10, quarterback Jake Locker announced his retirement at age 26, after a four-year career with the Tennessee Titans that paid him a little more than $12.5 million. Though his career was derailed by injuries and largely disappointing, Locker could have gotten a two-year deal that paid him Mark Sanchez money (2 years, $9 million). It may have led to a long career as a backup that paid him millions of dollars, or even reinvigorated a stalled career as a starting quarterback. Instead, he decided to walk away and remodel his house.
The next day, linebacker Jason Worilds retired at the age of 27. He played for the Pittsburgh Steelers for five years and made just shy of $10 million, and if he had opted to sign a free agent deal this month, he could have made upwards of $8 million per season. But Worilds reportedly wanted to focus on his faith.
And there was the retirement of Borland’s former teammate, Patrick Willis, who left the game at the age of 30 after a celebrated – if relatively brief – career that will probably still earn him enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Noting that his decision to retire rested mostly on injured feet, Willis said, ” to be sitting on the sideline just collecting a paycheck, I feel like that would be wrong.”
Those paychecks were scheduled to total $15 million over the next two seasons, or roughly $500,000 per game, which is what most Americans can hope to earn over the next 10 years.
And that’s why it’s so difficult for us to process why anyone would be willing to walk away from that much money. Locker, Worilds and Willis retired with sizeable earnings; Borland, who made a base salary of $420,000 last year and a signing bonus of $617,436 (three-fourths of which the 49ers might take back), won’t be living uncomfortably, but now he becomes a 24-year-old with enough money to get a nice home, instead of an NFL linebacker that was going to make $530,000 this coming season.
And that was probably just the beginning.
Based on his sole season with the Niners, Borland was shaping up to be the steal of the 2014 Draft. After making his first start in Week 7 (ironically for the injured Willis), he averaged more tackles-per-snap-played than anyone else in the league. He had an 18-tackle game against the Rams, a 17-tackle game against the Saints, a 16-tackle game against the Seahawks and a two-interception game against the Giants, and was named NFL Rookie of the Week and Month. It was the type of start to a career that almost always leads to a deal for top-tier money, and for an inside linebacker, that’s probably in the range of $40-$50 million by the time Borland would have hit free agency.
What type of a person turns his back on that kind of money?
The type that’s seen what multiple concussions can do to your brain, including clinical depression (which may have been a factor in the suicide of linebacker Junior Seau and several other former players) and early-onset Alzheimer’s. The type that realizes perhaps a paycheck isn’t worth the risk of a lifetime of misery. The type that values family and a future over football and figures.
There’s nothing wrong with playing the game until your body gives out, even if it means lowering your quality of life for most of your retired years. That is every pro football player’s prerogative; it’s their pursuit, their passion. Most of us can’t begin to comprehend the rigors of the pro game, and what these players put their bodies through every day. But we can understand the pursuit of millions of dollars.
His retirement probably won’t change the NFL – at least not any time soon – but to walk away from a presumptive payday, and to cite the very real dangers of playing professional football as his primary reason for doing so, Chris Borland has many fans asking for the first time: “Wow, how serious is this issue?”
As serious as a briefcase full of cash.