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After shocking retirement, 49ers linebacker finds new quest

Chris Borland remembers the good stuff about football, too.

The controversial former 49ers linebacker still savors the thrill of a game in New Orleans, when he pounced on a Drew Brees fumble late in the game to secure an overtime victory.

“That was probably the highlight of my rookie year,” Borland said.

And by rookie year, of course, he means career. Borland famously retired after his promising 2014 season. He shocked fans and coaches alike by walking away after making the NFL’s All-Rookie team rather than risk the haunting brain injuries that await so many other ex-players.

Even as Borland talked by phone on Monday, the NFL and NFL Players Association announced that they will begin phasing out 10 helmet models because they performed poorly in its annual testing procedures. But Borland was unmoved, saying, “We’re not going to innovate the problem away.”

“The issue is that the brain sits unfastened inside the skull. And the problem is inertia,” Borland, now 27, said. “It doesn’t matter what you do outside of the skull; that brain is still going to slam into the inside.

“So I think those that proclaim that helmets are going to solve the problem are being disingenuous. There are ways to make it incrementally safer through helmet innovation. But, no I don’t think that’s the answer.”

Borland is gone from the game but not the cause. He’ll be raising money for military veterans and NFL alumni coping with traumatic injuries when he participates in Pat’s Run this Saturday in Tempe, Arizona.

The run is named in honor of the late Pat Tillman, the former Leland High star, who left his own NFL career to join the U.S. Army in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Borland read Jon Krakauer’s book about Tillman, “Where Men Win Glory,” while playing at Wisconsin and remains forever moved.

“Pat Tillman is a hero of mine, like he is for many football players,” Borland said. “What’s really admirable about him, in addition to (his military service), is that he lived with conviction and he didn’t buy into a lot of the hype surrounding an NFL lifestyle or fame or money.”

Borland made 84 tackles and had two interceptions in his lone season with the 49ers. Jim Harbaugh, his coach that season, proclaimed in November of that season that, other than Borland’s family, he was the linebacker’s No. 1 fan.

So Borland got a few incredulous responses when he gave it all up. He still does.

“I can engage legitimate points,” he said Monday of the backlash. “What I have to ignore is that there are a lot of cavemen and Neanderthals who just call me names.”

More often, he finds understanding. Several current players have told Borland that they, too, would love to walk away from the game but economic circumstances — i.e. providing for their families — make that impossible.

“Most touchingly, I’ve heard from former players who voiced their support of my decision — even a few who wish they could have (retired earlier), too,” he said.

Borland partners now with the After The Impact Fund, which offers resources for military veterans and athletes with traumatic brain injuries. “Two populations,” he said, “that oftentimes feel hopeless.”

When he runs Saturday in honor of Tillman, he will do so with his brothers, Captain Joe Borland and Major John Borland, both active-duty Army officers.

On the surface, the After The Impact Fund is an odd blend: military veterans participate in actual wars while athletes deal only in war metaphors.

But Borland said the combination works. The organization’s board of directors includes both famous football names like Mike Ditka and Dan Reeves as well as noted military men such as Art Pue, a former Green Beret.

“Although they’re not exactly the same, athletes and veterans have similar issues, neurologically,” Borland said.

He pointed out that many military veterans suffer the effects of an explosive blast, while football players are more likely to be dealing with “the toll of a thousand of minor hits.” But both groups are made up mostly of driven, goal-oriented Type-A personalities. And both sometimes experience difficult transitions when they retire to a life without “the cohesion and power” of a tightly bonded unit.

In short, veterans and athletes tend to speak the same language.

“Sometimes men and women have trouble with just being vulnerable,” Borland said. “But when you co-mingle, and you interact with a different group you admire, I think you’re willing to share more.”

Funny as it sounds, Borland recoils a bit when he hears people call for football to be banned as a sport. “I don’t know if I’d go that far,” he said.

But when parents ask if their child should play football, he encourages them to opt for flag football, especially the youngest players. By limiting the tackle football years to high school, most players can limit their exposure to concussions to three or four years.

“I think flag football is a great alternative and it’s a great game in its own right,” Borland said, noting that NFL players such as Brees and Josh Cribbs have also touted the game. “It’s a wonderful alternative. You can develop all of the skills and athleticism and glean the lessons you can from contact football through playing flag.”

Borland strikes his own balance these days. He started a company that helps athletes incorporate meditation into their sport.

“It’s a fertile field to explore. And it’s more positive than brain injuries,” he said. “So I’m really thrilled with the place where I’ve settled.”

For more information or to donate, visit https://www.crowdrise.com/borland-brothers-race-for-atif

FILE - In this March 1, 2018, file photo, Chris Borland, a former NFL linebacker and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year for the University of Wisconsin, testifies before a Illinois House Mental Health Committee hearing in Springfield, Ill., on House Bill 4341, which would ban tackle football for kids under 12 years of age. Borland was illustrating how repetitive sub-concussive hits that begin when children play impact sports can be as dangerous as a single hit that results in a concussion. Democratic state Rep. Carol Sente, third from right, the sponsor of the proposal told The Associated Press Wednesday, April 18, 2018, the measure lacks the votes to pass this session. (Rich Saal//The State Journal-Register via AP, File)