The issue of player safety has grown as a national discussion point in recent years amidst the tragedies of NFL great Junior Seau and former Notre Dame star Dave Duerson, and is reaching uncharted territory with the recently announced retirement of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland. Player safety has made the transition in public discourse from an issue only impacting long since retired players to influencing up-and-coming NFL talent to walk away from the game as they enter their prime.
Borland was a standout defensive player at the University of Wisconsin before being selected in the third round of the NFL Draft by San Francisco. During his stellar rookie season – Borland would receive one vote for the Defensive Rookie of the Year – he recorded 107 tackles and was expected to see an expanded role within the 49ers defense after star linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement. Instead, Borland called it a wrap after his rookie campaign and walked away from a bright NFL future, as well as the enticing salary that comes with it.
The former Wisconsin Badger began to ponder hanging up his cleats during his first NFL training camp when he became concerned he had sustained a concussion while making a routine tackle during practice, but played through his apprehension due to fear of not making the team. Borland, who had suffered two previous concussions in his career, viewed the incident as an opportunity to reconsider his priorities.
“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 know about the dangers?’”
As more and more NFL players walk away from the game in their 20s, the importance of receiving an education that prepares them for life after football comes into focus.
It’s a lesson institutions like Notre Dame have been hammering home for decades, and why recruits often hear the popular phrase that attending Notre Dame is not a four-year decision, it’s a forty-year one. And the University of Notre Dame has the foundation to prove that statement is more than a sales pitch.
This past October Notre Dame won its eighth straight national championship in Graduation Success Rate for student-athletes. Twenty-one of Notre Dame’s 22 sports programs finished in first place within their particular sport, and Notre Dame tied for first place with Duke in Graduation Success Rate for African-American athletes.
Chris Borland’s decision to walk away from a lucrative NFL career because of an innate intuition there was something more to life is the exact sentiment Notre Dame tries to instill within its student-athletes during their time in South Bend, and has done so with much success.
Fighting Irish fans know Dave Duerson as an All-American and Super Bowl champion from the infamous 1985 Chicago Bears team, but how many know he graduated with honors from Notre Dame with a degree in economics? Or that current secondary coach Todd Lyght, who was an All-American at Notre Dame before having a long and distinguished NFL career, successfully owned a chain of pizzerias and a night club before selling them all to get back into coaching? Or that legendary linebacker from the Holtz era, Michael Stonebreaker, owns his own coffee business in New Orleans? Or that former team captain Aaron Taylor, whose NFL career was cut short by injury after winning a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers in the 1990s, spent five months teaching English in South America and helped build 40 temporary homes in Sri Lanka after a devastating tsunami before becoming the football analyst he is today?
As much as America loves the game of football it’s important to remember that it is indeed just a game and only represents one of life’s many chapters. It’s a conclusion Chris Borland reached after an internal struggle involving what he wanted out of life, and it’s a decision that Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who spent time at Notre Dame as a coach, understands.
“[Chris Borland] earned his degree from Wisconsin and devoted countless hours to community service. He represents all that we want our Wisconsin student-athletes to be.”
As more and more football players reexamine their priorities in life, the University of Notre Dame awaits them with open arms, happy to show them the way.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.