To protect himself from a life-altering hit, 49ers ILB Chris Borland delivered San Francisco’s defense yet another crippling blow.
The rising 24-year old star told ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” Monday that he plans to walk away from the game after just one season in the NFL due to concerns about the potential long-term neurological damage associated with the physical sport.
Borland’s decision to retire comes at an inopportune moment for the 49ers, as fellow linebacker Patrick Willis announced his decision to retire last week following a chronic toe injury. Borland will be the fifth defensive starter to leave the team prior to the 2015 season.
While his decision is purely proactive at this point, Borland told ESPN his own research into the increasingly controversial subject of long-term brain trauma led him to retire after mulling over the choice with friends, relatives and fellow athletes.
“I feel largely the same, as sharp as I’ve ever been. For me, it’s wanting to be proactive. 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.”
Borland’s departure not only causes an immediate need for depth at inside linebacker, it ends what was growing into a highly promising career for the young athlete.
The 77th overall pick in the 2014 draft, Borland was thrust into a starting position after Willis was sidelined early in the season. The rookie made the most of his opportunity, going on to lead the team with 128 tackles while also registering two interceptions, one sack and one fumble recovery in 14 games.
Borland’s retirement puts Trent Baalke in a bind, though the 49ers general manager was supportive of his decision:
“While unexpected, we certainly respect Chris’ decision. From speaking with Chris, it was evident that he had put a great deal of thought into this decision. He was a consummate professional from day one and a very well respected member of our team and community. Chris is a determined young man that overcame long odds in his journey to the NFL and we are confident he will use the same approach to become very successful in his future endeavors. We will always consider him a 49er and wish him all the best.”
Borland’s retirement now moves linebacker Michael Wilhoite into a familiar starting role opposite NaVorro Bowman. The 49ers must now search for a viable backup at the position. LBs Nick Moody and Chase Thomas remain an option to fill in for either Wilhoite or Bowman in case of injury, but represent a significant dropoff from the departed Willis and Borland.
It remains to be seen whether Bowman can return to peak form following his gruesome knee injury in the 2013 NFC championship game. The 49ers will rely more than ever on Bowman to make a full recovery.
ILB may also move to the top of the 49ers draft needs, alongside cornerback and wide receiver, and Baalke could use a high draft pick on someone who can be an immediate contributor in that position.