One week after Patrick Willis surprised the NFL with his decision to retire, his would-be replacement at inside linebacker has decided to do the same.
Chris Borland, who as a rookie last year led the 49ers in tackles, told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” he is stepping away from the game at age 24 because of concerns about the long-term effects of head trauma. Borland reportedly told the 49ers on Friday about his decision.
Borland was in contention for Defensive Rookie of the Year last season when an ankle injury landed him on injured reserve in Week 15, ending his season. He said he probably suffered a concussion in training camp – he played through the injury – and worried about how repeated blows to the head over an NFL career would affect him in the long term.
“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told the show. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
Borland, a third-round draft pick last season, said he has twice been diagnosed with a concussion – once playing soccer in eighth grade and again while playing football in high school but that he isn’t suffering from any concussion-related issues.
The 49ers had been caught by surprise by Willis’ retirement. The eight-year veteran walked away from the game at age 30 because he said his painful feet no longer allowed him to play at the Pro Bowl level to which he was accustomed.
In his prime, Willis was perhaps the fastest inside linebacker in the game, and he made the Pro Bowl his first seven years in the league. However, he missed 10 1/2 games of the 2014 season because of a toe injury, which heralded his departure.
Borland’s exit is a stunner considering his age and that, with Willis’ retirement, he was poised for a big role in the 49ers’ defense. Despite limited playing time last year, Borland had 107 tackles and two interceptions, one of which helped clinch a win over the New York Giants in Week 11.
“While unexpected, we certainly respect Chris’ decision,” general manager Trent Baalke said in a statement. “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.”
Teammates also were caught unaware. “I understand but still shocked ((Chris Borland)),” cornerback Tramaine Brock tweeted.
Last Tuesday, Willis talked about how at ease he was over his retirement, partly because of the way “Little Chris” took over his role last season. The 5-11, 248-pound Borland is shorter and slower than the prototype NFL linebacker. But he was terrier-like in his tenacity and was incredibly productive at Wisconsin, where he was an All-American, and as a rookie in San Francisco.
He becomes the most prominent player to leave the game over concerns about concussions and the brain disease – called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE – that has been documented in the many of the men who have played the game.
Two former 49ers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, running backs Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson, were determined to have suffered from CTE before their deaths. In explaining his decision, Borland spoke about former NFL players Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, who were were diagnosed with CTE after they committed suicide.
“I feel largely the same, as sharp as I’ve ever been. For me, it’s wanting to be proactive,” he told ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, who wrote a book, “League of Denial,” about the NFL’s efforts to suppress concussion research.
“I’m concerned that if you wait ’til you have symptoms, it’s too late,” Borland said. “ ... 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.”
With Willis and Borland gone, the 49ers will lean more heavily on inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who missed all of 2014 because of an ACL tear. Michael Wilhoite, who last month was the subject of trade discussions, likely becomes the leading candidate to play next to Bowman. The 49ers also have Nick Moody and Shayne Skov.
The team has taken a close look at Clemson inside linebacker Stephone Anthony, who is considered a second-round pick in the April 30-May 2 NFL draft.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.