During the week in March 2015 that changed his life, Chris Borland drove from his home south of San Francisco an hour or so north to Berkeley.
There he spoke with Steve Fainaru, an ESPN reporter and co-author of the book “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.”
Just a few months earlier, Borland had completed a standout rookie season playing linebacker for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, having previously starred for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Borland had news for Fainaru, who that night would break the story on ESPN. Borland had informed the 49ers that he was walking away from professional football after one season due to concern about potential brain injury.
Borland spoke with Fainaru because he wanted to get ahead of what he figured would be a one- or two-day story, something that might appear on the ticker that ran across the bottom of ESPN programming.
He figured wrong.
“A week later,” Borland says, “I was on ‘Face the Nation.’ ”
In the months that followed — Borland describes them as “a whirlwind” — he found himself the unwitting face of a contentious reckoning. How long could a football-obsessed nation ignore increasing evidence of the game’s devastating health consequences?
Borland was interviewed, profiled, applauded and denounced.
“My naive hope was that I was one person making a decision for my health,” he says. “ ‘Thank you, now I’ll carry on with my life.’ But I was put right in the middle of it.”
Nearly eight years later, the maelstrom — or at least Borland’s central role in it — has passed. He turns 32 this month, and having moved back to Madison in summer 2021 after nearly a decade away, he’s involved in numerous educational and creative projects, only some of which draw on the decision that made him famous.
One has him serving as executive producer and trying to find a streaming platform for the acclaimed festival documentary “Requiem for a Running Back,” which chronicles former Green Bay Packer Lew Carpenter’s struggle with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive brain disease.
Borland is also an instructor with the Search Inside Leadership Institute, a fellow with UW–Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds and a board member with UNCUT Madison, which provides a forum for student athletes at UW–Madison.
He’s involved, too, as producer of another documentary film currently in production: “Do Something,” which had its impetus in a 2019 mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio.
It takes Borland back to his roots. He grew up the sixth of seven children in Kettering, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton. He played all kinds of sports growing up but liked football best. During his senior year, Borland led Kettering’s Alter High School to its first Division IV state championship, rushing for 130 yards and scoring two touchdowns in the title game.
By then, he’d already committed to Wisconsin, having impressed the football staff at the Badgers’ high school camp the previous summer. Along with running back, Borland had played some defense in high school. UW put him at linebacker — though he was small for the position — and from the outset he was special, making All-America his senior year.
The 49ers picked him in the third round of the 2014 draft. It was during his rookie training camp that Borland took a hit that affected him profoundly.
Playing for UW (from 2009-13), Borland and his teammates knew that it was a former Badger, Mike Webster, who was the first NFL player proven to have died (in 2002) from CTE. But Webster had played a punishing 15 years as a center in the NFL. He was an extreme case. If somebody in the Badgers’ locker room forgot their keys, a teammate might joke: “CTE.”
“I didn’t know what it stood for,” Borland says.
At his first 49ers camp, Borland collided with a 280-pound fullback and suffered what he’s sure was a concussion. He described it later: “You’re in a fog. You’re not quite yourself.” Yet he didn’t report it — he was trying to make the team, win a starting spot.
But it set him on a journey to knowledge. Borland read the recently published “League of Denial.” Webster, it was clear, was not an anomaly. Borland thought back to the two likely concussions he’d suffered playing youth sports, coupled with the toll of years of high school and college football. He wrote a letter to his parents during the 49ers’ preseason: “I’m concerned about how much longer I want to do this.”
He played just one season, making the NFL’s All Rookie Team.
Borland forfeited much of the four-year, nearly $3 million contract he’d signed, but in the years since the publicity whirlwind passed, he’s gained much, too — valuable friendships and perspective as he’s moved from brain injury awareness advocacy to a wider variety of projects.
Borland has aligned himself with notable figures including Dr. Ann McKee, a UW grad who in 2018 was one of Time’s 100 most influential people for her research linking professional football and CTE. Borland wrote the magazine’s blurb on McKee: “She is reviled by the old boys’ club of a multibillion-dollar industry. … Yet Dr. McKee shows up for work every day. She shares her findings. And she tells the truth, however uncomfortable.”
In 2017, having earlier met UW neuroscientist Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, Borland helped initiate a meditative program there for former NFL players. He says Davidson told him, “If you have pathology, mindfulness practice won’t change that, but it might give you a better relationship with it.”
There have been disappointments, including a nearly completed eight-part podcast for the Players Tribune that was shelved amid an ownership change at the platform.
Borland, who says he “always knew he’d come back to Madison,” wants his future to include documentary filmmaking. “I enjoy storytelling and production,” he says, “which is a blend of creativity and organization.”
Football, not so much.
“I’m divorced from it,” he says. “I don’t really watch. I think I spent too much mental energy trying to reconcile things that aren’t reconcilable. It just isn’t a part of my life.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor at Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com/dougmoe.
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