As a parent, it's easy to see Borland used his head
The decision of 49ers linebacker Chris Borland to retire because of concussion fears is understandable.
THE CROWD was long gone, the game long over, the gym quieter than a library. But there we were, my wife and I with our only daughter, the basketball star, sitting on a table while a trainer tried to determine whether a trip to the hospital was in order.
She had banged her head again on the unforgiving planks of a high school gym, undercut by a smaller player no doubt encouraged by her coach to get in front of her and draw the charge. It rarely worked but was sometimes called anyway by referees who always seemed to me overly sympathetic to short kamikazes.
Our daughter was once one of those kamikazes, bouncing to the ground like A.I., getting to the free-throw line as much as a dozen times when she was a tiny, undersized point guard in middle school, before blossoming into the 5-10 edition she became in high school. This was her blessing, as well as her curse, as her trips to the hole became more frequent, and the contact she often drew less rewarded.
So she banged her head a lot. There were a couple of official concussions in there I think, but most of the time she banged her head, came out for a bit, went back in. And over that 4-year period, she spoke often of having trouble sleeping, even leaned a little too heavily at times on the magical qualities of Tylenol PM.
Don't worry, this isn't a sad story. Just an instructive one. The kid is 27, having a great career in Chicago, having a great life. I admit, the day she told us she didn't want to play in college was more than a little disappointing, but it was probably the smartest decision she has yet made. She went to a Big Ten school, watched a lot of great basketball, made great friends and memories, and no longer needed Tylenol PM to get to sleep. We dodged a bullet maybe. We'll see.
Another story, this one a little sadder. There was this kid I knew well who was just the most amazing athlete and a nice, respectful kid, with two great parents. He could run fast and throw hard and hit the baseball a ton and when he got to high school and also switched to football, he could throw that thing the length of the field.
But he was also concussion-prone. Officially there was one via a collision in baseball and later one during a football game, but again, who really knows? Just about every time you get hit in the head it moves your brain around and if we know nothing else about it, it is that it affects people differently.
Anyway the kid started behaving in a manner that was unimaginable when he was younger. His grades dipped, he got into a little trouble outside of school, didn't seem like the same kid for a while. Could there have been other factors? Sure, but if you knew the parents, that too seemed unimaginable.
So this is what I think of every time I read a story about athletes and concussions, about good people becoming lost people, about culpability and about denial. And it's what I thought of when I read about linebacker Chris Borland giving up all that potential money after just one greatly successful professional football season because he didn't want to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease found in the brains of dozens of deceased NFL players, the disease that has been cited or suspected as a cause for numerous suicides, among them Junior Seau and former Eagle Andre Waters and a more than a few hockey players as well.
I think about my kid, and about that other family's kid, and about the uncertainty surrounding trauma to the brain. How there are no acceptable number of concussions or blows to the head, how no one can tell you if allowing your children to play any contact sport improves their quality of life - or threatens it.
At age 24 Borland decided it was the latter, after starring at the University of Wisconsin and for a season with the San Francisco 49ers. There was no defining moment, no big bell-ringer that convinced him of this. He just did some homework, learned as much as he could about CTE and decided, in his words, that "the chance of that happening was more of a negative than the positive that my potential career could be."
You spend 35 years in this business, the themes get repetitive. Lately, thanks to Michael Sam, Sam Hinkie and Chip Kelly, there's a little newness involved.
But this is, phrased appropriately, mind-blowing-ly new. And I wonder if there are more chapters ahead.
The part I like the best though is the reaction of his parents, who learned of his intent to play just one NFL season back in August. "The first [emotion] that comes is relief," Jeff Borland, the father, told SFGate.com "You don't like seeing your son take that kind of physical punishment, just in general."
No, you sure don't. I'm sure there's a lot of head-scratching out there over this, a sense from some that it was too soon and unnecessary.
But for me, remembering that empty gym, your kid sitting on a table an hour after the game ended, it makes perfect sense.