SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It has been more than a year and a half since former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland decided to walk away from a promising NFL career.
As training camps and preseason games gear up, Borland doesn’t miss it. In fact, he’s not really even paying attention. That’s because he has other, far more serious issues to keep him occupied.
“I’ve got my hands full,” Borland said. “So I do not sit on my couch and reminisce about playing, although it’s definitely hard to replicate competing in front of 100,000 people.
“I don’t really keep tabs. I still have friends who are active, and I speak to them, but I don’t really follow football. That’s really the extent of it. I don’t really go out of my way to avoid it, but I just don’t really watch a whole lot or follow things. I’m busy with my own life.”
To that end, on Sunday Borland will run a half-marathon as part of the Ironman 70.3 Ohio team triathlon event in Delaware, Ohio. That’s in addition to a nearly three-month internship in the mental health program at the Carter Center in Atlanta and starting work toward a master’s degree and working in the athletic department at Oregon State. Borland also hopes to establish a nonprofit in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
All of those activities have a common denominator: They will help Borland in his post-football pursuits. The triathlon, in which Borland will run while his brother Mike and Ryan Hawk handle the biking and swimming legs, aims to raise money and awareness for the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund. The organization, which was founded by Mike Ditka, raises money for former NFL players who need help paying for lingering medical issues. The cause hits home with Borland because most of those players never had any idea of the possible effects of head trauma while playing for modest salaries.
“I just really feel passionate about their mission,” Borland said. “A generation of men really built the NFL and gave guys like me a shot, and a lot of these guys are left out in the cold by the league and forgotten. So it’s a very simple organization, it’s an assistance fund. I think it makes a whole lot of sense. Everybody can agree with the ethos of this organization. It’s helping guys who are in dire need. Over the past half-year plus, I have met families who have benefited, and I just think it’s a wonderful thing that they’re doing, so I’m happy to be a part of it.”
It’s one of a number of causes related to head injuries and mental health Borland has embraced in his post-football career. Borland just completed a 10-week internship at the Carter Center. Along the way, he met former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, who founded the center in the early 1980s. Borland worked with Dr. Thomas Bornemann, the director of the mental health program there, and one of the leading voices in the field.
And while Borland learned plenty during the internship, he also was able to offer some unique insight. When they first met, President Carter joked with Borland that he quit the NFL to work with his wife. As he often does nowadays, Borland got mixed reaction when he told his story.
“They have never had a pro athlete intern there,” Borland said. “People have a wide variety of reactions. I don’t know if it’s an issue in CTE that many people were privy to. The Carter Center doesn’t work with medical injuries, it’s a mental health program, so they help people with mental illness. I just thought there was synergy with stigma and with empathizing with unseen injuries. People don’t always treat mental illness like physical disability or challenges with health. That was kind of where I found common ground, and I think that’s why they agreed to have me on board.”
Borland was able to observe how the Carter Center works on policy and advocacy for those with mental health issues. For example, the center works to educate journalists on how to write and speak about mental health issues. There’s also a program that trains mental health clinicians in Liberia and will soon do the same in Sierra Leone. Along the way, Borland participated in the filming of a documentary called “Requiem for a Running Back,” which debuted at the Carter Center recently. As the daughter of a former NFL running back Lew Carpenter, who dealt with CTE, Rebecca Carpenter spent four years putting the project together in an effort to shed light on what players of a past generation have gone through when their time in the game is done.
Borland was passionate about mental health before the internship but believes it helped him pick up valuable knowledge he can apply toward founding his own nonprofit.
“I don’t know that the internship broadened my horizons to give me perspective that I didn’t have before,” Borland said. “But I think the nature of my decision is that I’ll be linked to this issue of traumatic brain injury in football, and I’d like to do so in an appropriate manner, so I think the internship helped that.”
When Borland finishes his run Sunday afternoon, he’ll turn his attention toward going back to school. He’s set to begin a one-year master’s program in interdisciplinary studies which focuses on political science, kinesiology and sociology. He’ll also work with the athletic department while in Corvallis, Oregon.
As for the half-marathon, Borland says he doesn’t find himself running in order to keep his competitive juices flowing. He ran the San Francisco Marathon last year and joked that the ESPN camera crew that filmed it was left waiting at the finish line much longer than anticipated. He also plays basketball and soccer and finds other outlets to scratch his athletic itch.
Why the former linebacker has turned to running, even Borland doesn’t seem to know, but he doesn’t mind a chance to get out and be active.
“I think about the fact that maybe I should do a golf outing next time or something,” Borland said, laughing. “I guess I compete in everything I do, but it’s always good to get out and be active and find an outlet for all of that pent-up aggression you had as an athlete.”
But for Borland, it’s more important to help those that are no longer capable of doing the same.