San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland had a promising football career in front of him. He is 24 and set to take over the starting position vacated by the retiring Patrick Willis. Borland had a standout rookie season, garnering 108 tackles although he only hit the starting lineup in Week 7. He was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Week in Weeks 10 and 11, and then Defensive Rookie of the Month. He was on track for all the riches and fame of a long NFL career, and then he announced his retirement. He cited fear of head trauma, and a concern for his future health.

This decision will send shock waves through NFL player ranks. I don't think it will lead to an immediate widespread spate of retirements -- but it clearly will make players think about whether the allure of the NFL is worth the risk of future dementia. I had a crisis of conscience in the 90s watching clients get hit in the head. We held a concussion conference with leading neurologists that had many top players listening to the facts. One of those players is now suffering from early signs of dementia. We issued a white paper with a variety of suggested changes. Not much happened.

In 2005 Warren Moon, the Concussion Institute and I held a conference at which neurologists like Bennet Omalu, Julian Bailes, Robert Cantu, Kevin Guskiewicz and others suggested that three or more concussions could occasion an exponentially higher rate of ALS, Alzheimers, premature senility, chronic traumatic encepalopathy and depression. I called it a ticking time bomb and un-diagnosed health epidemic that would get worse because of the size, strength and speed of athletes. The physics of some hits, the actual G-force, accelerated the risk.

I now believe that each time an offensive lineman hits a defensive lineman at the inception of every football play it creates a low level sub-concussive event. So an offensive lineman could play in high school, collegiate and professional ball sustaining as many as 10,000 sub-concussive blows, none of which were diagnosed or brought to the attention of the player. The aggregate of these hits would almost certainly be more destructive of brain health than three knockout blows.

If 50 percent of the mothers in this country understand these facts and tell their teenage sons "You can play any sport and we will support you, but NOT tackle football", it won't destroy football. It will change the socio-economics of those who plays. The same kids who now box to escape negative economic circumstances will be the players willing to accept the risk. I love football and think it brings great life lessons applicable to other callings. We need research into helmetry and nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals that can prophylactically protect the brain or heal it after injury. Changes in the amount of contact are also helpful.

Pro athletes have all been in a state of denial about their physical health since learning these norms in Pop Warner and Little League. For Chris Borland, at the beginning of a promising career, to walk away from football is a dramatic marker.

His retirement is a clarion call to other players to assess their futures, and another sign that prevention and cure of concussion has to be urgently addressed.

-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.

CTE in NFL vets


Mike Webster #52

As a player, Mike Webster was an all-time great, earning nine Pro Bowl selections and winning four Super Bowls with the Steelers. In 1997, Webster was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


Mike Webster #52

Unfortunately, Webster's post-football life was troubled. He was afflicted by amnesia, depression and dementia in his later years, many of which he spent homeless despite having relatives willing to house him. After his death in 2002, he became the first NFL veteran diagnosed with CTE.


Forrest Blue #75

As an offensive lineman, Forrest Blue was a four-time All-Pro. His eleven-year NFL career was split between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts. Blue died in 2011 in an assisted care facility, after which he was diagnosed with CTE.


Lew Carpenter #30

Lew Carpenter made a 47-year career out of football. After playing at the University of Arkansas the running back spent 10 years playing for the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. He retired from coaching in 1996 due to health reasons and died in 2010, agreeing to donate his brain to science.


Lou Creekmur #76

An eight-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman, Lou Creekmur suffered from a 30-year decline in mental health leading up to his death in 2009. He was 82.


Shane Dronett #99

After a 10-year career in the NFL, defensive lineman Shane Dronett experienced significant cognitive troubles in 2006. He suffered from confusion, paranoia, and bouts of rage. In 2009, he picked up a gun and confronted his wife, who fled. In her absence, Dronett fatally shot himself. He was 38.


Dave Duerson #26

In 11 NFL seasons, Duerson was a four-time Pro-Bowler and the 1987 NFL man of the year. In 2011, he shot himself in the chest and died. Duerson had suspected something regarding his mental health: just before shooting himself, he texted his family asking them to donate his brain to science.


Ray Easterling #32

An eight-year veteran who spent his entire career with the Atlanta Falcons, Ray Easterling was one of the veterans to add his name to a federal lawsuit against the NFL regarding concussions. In April 2012, he fatally shot himself, allegedly due to the worsening of his clinical depression and the deterioration of his cognitive functioning.


Cookie Gilchrist #2

Between the CFL and the AFL, Cookie Gilchrist earned nine All-Star bids. The running back was also a two-time AFL rushing champion. After his playing career, Gilchrist displayed erratic and sometimes angry behavior, particularly to those he had worked with in his playing days. He died in 2011 and was diagnosed with advanced CTE.


John Grimsley #59

A 10-year NFL veteran, Grimsley is best known for making the Pro Bowl in 1988. In 2008, he died of an apparent accidental gunshot wound, after which he was diagnosed with CTE.


Chris Henry #15

Henry's CTE diagnosis was a breakthrough that brightened the spotlight on football's dangers. After several run-ins with the law, Henry died in 2009 from a motor vehicle accident. An autopsy revealed that Henry had CTE at just 26 years old. He was the first still-active NFL player to be diagnosed with the condition.T


Terry Long #74

Long was a consistent starter for the Steelers from 1984 until his retirement in 1991. That same year, Long tested positive for steroids and attempted suicide. He eventually killed himself in 2005 by drinking antifreeze.


John Mackey #88

A five-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL champion, John Mackey was only the second tight end ever admitted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After his playing days, Mackey was afflicted with dementia, and his condition worsened until he required full-time care in an assisted living facility. He died in 2011.


John Mackey #88

Since John's death, his wife, Sylvia Mackey, has become a powerful advocate for NFL veterans and continues to push the NFL to change through her activism and legal work.


Ollie Matson #33

In addition to having a 14-year NFL career, Ollie Matson also won two medals at the 1952 Olympics. He died in 2011 from complications from dementia and was later diagnosed with CTE.


Tom McHale #73

A bruising defensive end with an Ivy League education, Tom McHale played in the NFL from 1987 to 1995. He died in 2008 from an accidental drug overdose. His widow now works for the Boston University CTE Center as a family relations liason.


Junior Seau #55

Perhaps the most accomplished player to be diagnosed with CTE, Junior Seau was a 12-time Pro Bowler, the 1994 AFC Player of the Year, and a member of the NFL 1990s All-Decade team.


Junior Seau #55

In May 2012, Seau was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. While never diagnosed with a concussion during his playing career, Seau's wife reported that he did admit to experiencing several. The linebacker also experienced insomnia for years leading up to his death.


Justin Strzelczyk #73

As an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Strzelczyk's career was cut short by his erratic off-field behavior and legal troubles. Upon his death in a high-speed police chase in 2004, alcohol and drugs were initially blamed. An autopsy revealed that the lineman had suffered brain damage.


Andre Waters #20

During his 12-year NFL career, Andre Waters earned a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the NFL. Unfortunately, Waters wound up shooting himself in the head in 2006. An autopsy discovered brain damage sustained during his playing days.


Jovan Belcher #59

A young, promising NFL linebacker, Jovan Belcher killed himself in a murder-suicide in December 2012. After killing his girlfriend, Belcher drove to the Kansas City Chiefs' practice facility and shot himself with a handgun in the parking lot.


Jovan Belcher #59

After Belcher's death, an autopsy diagnosed CTE in the 25-year-old.

previous next