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On Andre Waters and Chris Borland

Andre Waters, the late Eagle whose suicide was linked to brain trauma, didn’t have the retired 49er’s options.

49ers inside linebacker Chris Borland intercepts a pass intended for Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham. (John Munson/NJ Advance Media for via USA TODAY Sports)
49ers inside linebacker Chris Borland intercepts a pass intended for Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham. (John Munson/NJ Advance Media for via USA TODAY Sports)Read more

BELLE GLADE, Fla. - They call it "The Muck." Life at the bottom layer of the world's most powerful economy necessitates the acceptance of a certain degree of irony. You feel you cannot beat it, and so you join it, you embrace it, you claim it as your own. In this small, impoverished region on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee, the muck is something more than the damp, mineral-rich soil in which you attempt to cultivate a life. It is life. It is where you are from.

The cemetery sits on the edge of a sugar-cane field where dirt rises in clouds above the beds of F-150s and green stalks tremble beneath the bellies of yellow crop-dusters. Across Gator Boulevard, on the east side of Sugar House Road, a brown-and-gray factory belches streams of white smoke into the blue spring sky, the necessary byproduct of a process that each year turns 12,500 acres of land into 120,000 pounds of raw sugar and 3.5 million gallons of molasses.

The cemetery is one of two that lay within a 10-minute drive of the region's high schools: Glades Central and Pahokee. To the north is Port Macaya. Here, in the south, is a place called Foreverglades. I am standing behind an office building that greets visitors to the plot, staring at a modest brass plaque engraved with the outline of a football player. The hum of airplanes and farm equipment mix with the occasional buzz of a mosquito. A small lizard scampers through the parched grass. Four years after they buried Andre Waters, a headline in the closest big-city paper was unequivocal. "Football killed him," it declared, quoting the doctor who studied his brain. Here in the muck is where he now lies.

Nearly a decade before the 49ers' Chris Borland walked away from football on his own terms, Waters helped launch the national conversation about the sport when he stepped onto the deck of his pool with a .32-caliber Smith & Wesson and pulled the trigger. In the years that followed an expert's claim that a lifetime of blows to the head had reduced the 44-year-old Waters' brain to that of an elderly dementia patient, the conversation took the shape that these things often do. We trained our cannons of moral indignation on the easiest targets and blasted away, all the while implicitly proclaiming that we were shocked - Shocked! - that such a violent game would carry commensurate consequences. It was the NFL's job to ensure we were watching a humane sport, regardless of what it said about our own humanity that such a delegation needed to be made.

And now a 24-year-old linebacker has voluntarily walked away and we are yearning to believe it means something has changed. Awareness is all it took. We have made them aware, and they are reacting accordingly. In the words of a Washington Post writer who compared the logic of Borland's retirement to the logic of a gladiator deciding to retire in Ancient Rome.

"Just in general," she concluded, "when you look around your sport and notice people suffering multiple traumatic injuries - not when they screw up, but when they play the game correctly - you're not the crazy one for leaving."

And that is why I have come here, to these towns, to this cemetery, to this sticky-sweet place of sugar and muck where tin roofs warp and rust and covered porches cave in the middle, their slats slanting inward at varying degrees of instability. It is why I stand at the edge of a football player's grave and at the top of a grassy bank overlooking the dark water and vacant docks of the impossibly vast Okeechobee. To wonder how much would have changed.

Maybe Andre Waters wouldn't be lying here if the NFL had educated him about the risks he was taking. Maybe different rules or different equipment would have saved his brain and maybe his life. Maybe he would have been more receptive to the people who encouraged him to play with a more mindful abandon, his agent and his high school coach among them. Maybe he would have walked away from the game before the game forced him to, the way Chris Borland did. Andre Waters: the ninth of 11 children, growing up in a single-parent household in the most impoverished corner of the state, undrafted out of Division II Cheyney at a time when the draft had 12 rounds. Maybe he wouldn't have once told his agent, "If I don't do this, I'm going to be out of a job and I can't feed my family." Maybe he just needed awareness.

As of September, only four high schools in the nation had at least five alumni on NFL rosters. One of them is Pahokee. Another is Glades Central. It's hard to imagine the number of players produced by this 6-mile stretch of dirt and grass. It is even harder to imagine the number that lie inside of it.

Pooh Griffith, 18, senior captain of the eventual state champion Pahokee Blue Devils, the same year Borland was a senior at Archbishop Alter in Wisconsin, gunned down after a dance that followed the team's homecoming game in 2008.

Paul Buxton, 21, brother of Rahaem Broxton, another star on that Blue Devils team, gunned down in 2010 during Rahaem's freshman season at Western Michigan.

Stanfield Watson, 18, 2005 Glades Central player, killed in a car crash the summer after his senior year.

Roosevelt Johnson III, 33, standout defensive lineman on the 1999 Glades Central state-title team, killed in a 2014 shooting hours after his alma mater's game.

"People who stay in Pahokee either end up dead or in jail," Blue Devils player Fred Johnson said in a 2014 profile in the St. Petersburg Times.

We live in a world in which certain environments condition their inhabitants to believe in a limited set of options. If they believe that their other options are poverty, jail or death, it seems rational that they will continue to choose an elevated risk of head trauma if it means playing the game with the ferocity they believe is required to maximize their chances of escape.

That is why I am here. Over the past 2 days I have listened to portraits of Chris Borland the bellwether, Chris Borland the quitter, Chris Borland the prism. But Chris Borland is none of these things. He is a man with options, with an education, with a stable family from a stable neighborhood, with a dad who is a financial planner.

Borland is, in all likelihood, an anomaly. And if he isn't, then we have all the more reason to worry, because the logical end to that hypothetical is a sport where the only participants are those with no other options. Professional football is not a violent sport because of its rules or its sponsors or its fan base. It is a violent sport because survival is a violent process, and the more limited a being's options for survival, the more energy he must channel into those that he does enjoy.

A reduction in violence requires a reduction in the desperation from which the majority of violence stems. Watch the video of the aftermath of the devastating blow to the head of LeSean McCoy, who missed time with a concussion in 2012, received against the Redskins. Watch his eyes as he fights to regain possession of his helmet from a trainer who wants to keep him off the field. How do you regulate that desperation, particularly given the interpretation a player might make of McCoy's eventual trade?

Roger Goodell doesn't have the power to change the world, but it is not unreasonable that he could affect change, particularly with the NCAA, where coaches and athletic directors and presidents are incentivized to keep their athletes' options beyond the football field as limited as possible. But, then, change itself is a violent process. It takes time, and substance, two things we rarely demand in the midst of our populist rage.