Chris Borland puts brain before brawn

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Maybe Chris Borland is a wuss. Maybe he’s paranoid.

I could be wrong, but I doubt it.

That the San Francisco 49ers linebacker retired from NFL football at age 24, after just one very successful season — without leaving on a gurney or a slab — is blowing people’s minds.

Yes, NFL folks and teammates and fans are superficially wishing him well. But underneath the back pats lies the authentic response: What?

What the hell are you doing, son?

Leaving all that money on the table?

All that glory?

Dumping the American Dream just because you had a nightmare about something that could possibly happen to you way down the road?

That incredulousness has a sharp edge to it because what if Borland is doing the right thing? What if he’s the smartest guy in the room?

All that can replace the amazement is fear. Fear that this head trauma stuff is so real that it’s like tobacco, or asbestos, or — God forbid — radiation.

Why, exactly, is Borland quitting the game?

‘‘Brain disease, frankly,’’ he told ESPN investigator Mark Fainaru-Wada. ‘‘The chance of that happening was more of a negative than the positive that my potential career could be.’’

Nobody told Borland to quit. Nobody even encouraged him to quit. On the 49ers, nobody wanted him to quit.

Indeed, he leaves a gaping hole at middle linebacker, following seven-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis out the door.

He quit because he did ‘‘a lot of research’’ on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, the degenerative disease that only comes from blows to the head, the dark and diminishing reward for getting one’s ‘‘bell rung’’ or ‘‘seeing stars’’ a few times too many.

CTE was found in the brains of former stars-turned-suicides Andre Waters, Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling and dozens of other deceased NFL players.

Borland talked to doctors and experts in the field of concussions and determined his own future brain health had to preempt the primitive joy of, as coaches love to call it, ‘‘sticking your head in there.’’

Though NFL players retire from the game all the time, they almost always do it under duress. They’re cut, they’re crippled, they’re in too much pain, they’re old as heck.

Borland is none of those.

This is a big moment here. Borland is not urging other players to quit. ‘‘Use your freedom to do what you want,’’ he said, echoing an American value we all cherish.

But an elite player who has finally heard the warnings about dementia, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease and the other brain issues that often demonize tough old players — that is new. Or, rather, a player acting on that knowledge, making a sudden reversal of values, that is stunning.

‘‘It wasn’t worth the risk,’’ Borland summed up.

So the question for the rest of us is: When is it worth the risk?

‘‘Be informed’’ is what we are told. But what does that mean?

The safe thing to do would be to ban football — and all sports where head trauma is not an accident but an essential part of the game — until all the information is in.

Yet common sense tells us — and has told us for decades, regardless of NFL cover-ups and disinformation — that even sub-concussive hits to the head can’t be good. How could they be? Does hammering your finger every day lead to anything positive?

And this: A human should be more protective of his brain — his essence and soul — than anything. Scientist Stephen Hawking cannot move a pinkie, but he is more human than mobile, drooling ex-football players who can’t remember their names, wandering the dim halls of the demented.

Borland was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, an All-American and Wisconsin’s male recipient of the Big Ten Outstanding Sportsmanship Award for 2014. He was also the school’s 2014 Student-Athlete of the Year.

Maybe that’s the key. I hate the contrived word ‘‘student-athlete,’’ but people recognize it, and Borland must be a thinker.

In this winner-take-all, middle-class-ruined economy, governed by who has the most toys, Borland turned down millions to protect his health. Because he is educated.

Studies have shown that even one year of high school football alters the so-called ‘‘white matter’’ in an adolescent’s brain. White matter is too important to ignore. It is, or should be, unriskable.   Borland excelled at a dangerous profession, similar to, say, cobra-hunting.

It wasn’t worth it, he determined.

‘‘I could be wrong,’’ he said.

I doubt it.


Twitter: @ricktelander

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