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Ex-49ers LB Chris Borland doesn't think football can be saved

In a revealing in-depth story by ESPN The Magazine, Chris Borland explains his decision to retire, the insane lengths he went to to stay on the field, and why the future of football is irredeemable.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Borland's decision to retire from football after just one very promising season in the NFL was a sobering moment for a lot of people partaking in the sport in some capacity -- fans, players, coaches, etc. Borland made the decision after extensive research that went beyond a few inspired Google searches. He directly reached out to researchers, asked his own questions, and made a decision, for himself alone, that he would be better off quitting the sport and saving his brain from the accumulated damage of thousands of impacts.


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At the time of his retirement, Borland was quiet. He explained the decision to ESPN's Outside the Lines, then set out on the rest of his life. Now, five months later, ESPN The Magazine has a detailed account of what Borland has been doing, how he feels about football and what he thinks the future of the sport may be.

It is an absolutely fascinating read for anyone with the time to dig in. It's reported and written by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, who wrote League of Denial, which studied traumatic brain injuries in the NFL. Here are a few of the biggest revelations from Borland's story:

Borland believes he's suffered 30 concussions

A visit to the Boston School of Medicine after he retired revealed just how much damage to his brain Borland may have done.

"Some people have the misconception that concussions occur only after you black out when you get a hit to the head or to your body," the graduate assistant told him. "But in reality, concussions have occurred any time you've had any symptoms for any period of time." She ticked them off: blurred vision, seeing stars, sensitivity to light or noise, headaches, dizziness, etc.

"Based on that definition, how many concussions do you think you've had?" she asked.

Borland paused.

"I don't know, 30?" he said finally. "Yeah, I think 30's a good estimate."

Thankfully, Borland's vital signs appear to be okay.

The NFL surprised Borland with a drug test after he retired

The timing of this request was certainly curious, especially because Borland had made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that he would not be returning to football. Borland, knowing that his name might be sullied if he refused to take the test, agreed, but also had an independent test conducted.

"I don't want to be a conspiracy theorist," he says. "I just wanted to be sure." Borland agreed to submit a urine sample to the NFL's representative, who drove in from Green Bay and administered the test in the Wisconsin trainer's room. Then he hired a private firm for $150 to test him independently. Both tests came back negative, according to Borland.

"I don't really trust the NFL," he says.

Football is an addiction almost on par with sex

Borland was not dispassionate towards the game, but his attachment to it may not have been healthy.

"Outside of sexual intercourse, there's probably nothing like it. But fun is the wrong word for it. I don't consider football fun. It's not like a water park, or a baseball game."

Borland was more hurt in college than he let on

Borland created a reputation at Wisconsin for being one of the toughest players in football, and that's before anyone knew anything about his life off the field. He once had a teammate who had to wake him up through the night out of fear he'd lapse into a coma.

Borland won't even coach football

Borland admitted he has trouble even watching football. And though he has the utmost respect for his former coaches, he won't lend them a hand.

Wisconsin liberally administered painkillers

Borland had to frequently use a substance called "Toradol" to keep performing at a high level on the field, and used it more often than perhaps he should have. At one point his college career, he was using it every other game.

Frequently injured teammate Mike Taylor used it even more.

Wisconsin wouldn't say much for the story, beyond a generic statement that said players are allowed to return once they've been cleared as "fit" to return and that Toradol usage was "closely monitored."

The NFL has "fall guys"

Apart from his worries about trauma, Borland also disliked certain aspects of player culture.

"Get yourself a fall guy," Borland says one of the former players advised. The former player, whom Borland declined to name, told the rookies that if they ran into legal trouble, their designated 
fall guy would be there to take the blame and, if necessary, go to jail. "'We'll bail him out,'" Borland says the former player assured them.

Borland was appalled. "I was just sitting there thinking, 'Should I walk out? What am I supposed to do?' " he recalls. He says he didn't leave the room because he didn't want to cause a scene, but the incident stayed with him.

Borland believes football can't be saved

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the story was Borland's pessimism about football's future, which is a big reason why he has been reluctant to promote sports concussion events. When he spoke at the National Summit on Sports Concussion in Los Angeles, he surprised the room of researchers:

No, it can't, Borland told the researchers, contradicting Nece and, by extension, one of the main reasons behind the conference. "I made a decision a few months ago to walk away from football based on not only what I'd come to learn but also what I'd experienced," he said. "The game may be safer; you can make an argument about that. My experience over my five years at Wisconsin and my one year in the NFL was that there were times where I couldn't play the game safely. There are positive measures we can take ... but on a lead play, on a power play, there's violence."

Go read the story now.

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SB Nation presents: What Chris Borland's retirement means for the NFL