I envy Chris Borland.
My first encounter with Chris was in the fall of 2011, when Penn State faced Wisconsin in what was both of our sophomore seasons. I recall thinking that he was the best linebacker I had ever faced, and throughout my entire collegiate career this held true. Chris was a tough, instinctive, downhill linebacker with great leverage who was never afraid of contact.
These past few days, I’ve heard many opinions on Chris and his decision to retire from the NFL at the age of 24 due to concerns about long-term brain injury. These opinions range from songs of praise calling Chris one of few football players with any sense, to words of derision describing him as soft.
The latter couldn’t be farther from the truth. Chris was one of the toughest football players I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing against.
Naturally, I believe that I have a certain insight into this dilemma, due to my non-athletic pursuits. In particular, I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s in mathematics, all with a 4.0, and numerous published papers in major mathematical journals. I am a mathematical researcher in my spare time, continuing to do research in the areas of numerical linear algebra, multigrid methods, spectral graph theory and machine learning. I’m also an avid chess player, and I have aspirations of eventually being a titled player one day.
With all of these interests outside of the sport, I am often asked why I play football, how I feel about brain injury, and if that’s something I think about. This question has come up in NFL combine interviews, media interviews, and even in casual conversation with fans or fellow mathematicians. It can range from the very tame “You have such a bright future; aren’t you afraid of hurting your brain?” to the much more direct “You’re a fool for playing football, where are your parents?” I can assure you, I have received both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.
It’s not rude to ask. It’s not some taboo topic that offends. It is a simple truth. Playing a hitting position in the NFL can’t possibly help your long-term mental health. However, it’s also true that how bad such a pursuit is for you is something that, I believe, no one really knows for sure right now.
With that said, why take the risk?
Objectively, I shouldn’t. I have a bright career ahead of me in mathematics. Beyond that, I have the means to make a good living and provide for my family, without playing football. I have no desire to try to accumulate $10 million in the bank; I already have more money in my bank account than I know what to do with. I drive a used hatchback Nissan Versa and live on less than $25k a year. It’s not because I’m frugal or trying to save for some big purchase, it’s because the things I love the most in this world (reading math, doing research, playing chess) are very, very inexpensive.
My mother was always supportive of whatever endeavors I wanted to pursue. But this is not the life she wanted for me. I can remember all the way back to when I started playing football in high school. At the end of every season my mother would tell me that I’ve played enough football, that it was okay for me to call it quits. She would tell me that I have such bright things on the horizon, that I don’t need to play. This past fall I finished my 10th season of football, and, as usual, this offseason I had this conversation with my mother for the 10th time.
What my mother and a great majority of my friends, family, and fellow mathematicians don’t understand is that I’m not playing for the money. I’m not playing for some social status associated with being an elite athlete. No, the media has not brainwashed me into thinking this is what real men do.
I play because I love the game. I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else. My teammates, friends and family can attest to this: When I go too long without physical contact I’m not a pleasant person to be around. This is why, every offseason, I train in kickboxing and wrestling in addition to my lifting, running and position-specific drill work. I’ve fallen in love with the sport of football and the physical contact associated with it.
Simply put, right now, not playing football isn’t an option for me. And for that reason, I truly envy Chris Borland.