UPDATE, 11:11 p.m.: The 49ers released the following statement on Monday night:
"While unexpected, we certainly respect Chris' decision," said 49ers general manager Trent Baalke. "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."
Chris Borland is retiring from the NFL after one season, he told ESPN's Outside the Lines, "because of concerns about the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma."
A third-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2014, Borland just completed his first NFL season. In 14 games (eight starts), the 24-year-old, former Wisconsin star recorded a 49ers-high 108 tackles with one sack and two interceptions. He was named NFL Rookie of the Week in Weeks 10 and 11, and was the Defensive Rookie of the Month for November.
Borland told OTL he informed the 49ers on Friday after consulting with "family members, concussion researchers, friends and current and former teammates, and studying what is known about the relationship between football and neurodegenerative disease."
Seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis retired from the NFL last week. Among other reasons, the 30-year-old Willis said he was retiring because of "constant pain in his feet," according to OTL. Borland said that Willis' retirement had no role in his decision.
"I feel largely the same, as sharp as I've ever been, for me it's wanting to be proactive," said Borland. "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 said he has been diagnosed with only two concussions; one while playing soccer as an eighth-grader and one playing football during his sophomore year of high school.
Borland, who had a four-year contract worth nearly $3 million and a signing bonus of $617,436, said he had heard stories of former NFL players like Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling and Mike Weber who all faced serious health issues after their careers were over. One turning point for Borland might have been in training camp last summer, when he was fighting for a roster spot in the 49ers' group of linebackers, one of the top units in the league at that time.
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 pre-season, at Houston, he wrote a letter to his parents, informing them that he thought that his career in the NFL would be brief because of his concerns about the potential long-term effects of the head injuries.
The full OTL is certainly worth a full read. This is news stunning—a player who received one vote for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after a college career that saw him become an All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year before leaving Wisconsin sixth in school history in total tackles—but if there's a silver lining to be had, it's that Borland gets to leave on his own terms.
Borland earned a bachelor's degree in history at UW, and told OTL he has plans to return to school and potentially begin a career in sports management.
Borland's retirement also calls to mind John Moffitt, the former All-American Wisconsin offensive lineman who was a third-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2011. Moffitt appeared in 17 games over two seasons with the Seahawks, was suspended four games in December 2011 for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. In August 2013, he was traded to the Denver Broncos before retiring that November. His decision sparked national attention, and a November 2014 feature by The New York Times detailed his "rocky transition" to post-NFL life.
It's natural to feel sad for Borland, but at least it can be said that he's leaving football on his own terms. If his future does indeed include a return to school—UW or elsewhere—or anything similar, it feels safe to say Borland will find success quite naturally.