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49ers LB Chris Borland is retiring after one season rather than risk head injuries

San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Chris Borland tackles Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman during a preseason game. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)
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Chris Borland made a stunning announcement Monday, telling ESPN that he will be retiring from the NFL after an outstanding rookie season. The 49ers linebacker told “Outside the Lines” that he was concerned about the possible effects that head injuries could have on his quality of life.

The news about Borland comes less than a week after fellow San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis also retired, in his case over concerns that foot injuries had sapped his abilities. Borland and Willis are among five NFL players aged 30 and under who have left the game this offseason, for different stated reasons. From the ESPN report:

Borland said he began to have misgivings during training camp. He said he sustained what he believed to be a concussion stuffing a running play but played through it, in part because he was trying to make the team.
“I just thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? Is this how I’m going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I’ve learned and knew about the dangers?'”
He said the issue “gathered steam” as the season progressed. Before the fourth game of the preseason, at Houston, he wrote a letter to his parents informing them that he thought his career in the NFL would be brief because of his concerns about the potential long-term effects of head injuries.
After the season, Borland said, he consulted with prominent concussion researchers and former players to affirm his decision. He also scheduled baseline tests to monitor his neurological well-being going forward “and contribute to the greater research.” After thinking through the potential repercussions, Borland said the decision was ultimately “simple.”

Borland had 107 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and a fumble recovery during an impressive rookie season, one that included an NFL Defensive Player of the Week nod. A third-round pick out of Wisconsin, the linebacker had already figured prominently into the 49ers’ plans, but never more so than following Willis’s retirement, and now the team must scramble to replace both players.

[Is Chris Borland retirement the beginning of the end for the NFL?]

By retiring, Borland is walking away from a four-year contract worth just under $3 million. However, his retirement for essentially precautionary reasons is another indication of the growing concern among NFL players over the effects of repeated head trauma, as numerous studies have suggested a link between the violence of football and debilitating brain injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

“I feel largely the same, as sharp as I’ve ever been. For me, it’s wanting to be proactive,” Borland told ESPN. “I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late. … There are a lot of unknowns. I can’t claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”

The other 30-and-under NFL players who have retired recently are the Steelers’ Jason Worilds, the Titans’ Jake Locker and the Raiders’ Maurice Jones-Drew. Worilds reportedly wants to devote his life to his faith; Locker said that he had lost the necessary “burning desire” to play (and could try out baseball); and Jones-Drew, after gaining just 96 yards on 43 carries last season, apparently decided that his nine-year career had run its course.