Column: Line Drives — Preventing injuries is important to safety

[This is my column in the March 19 issue of The Commercial Review.]

Patrick Willis called it quits because of his feet.

Chris Borland retired out of concerns for his health.

It appears as if NFL players have been dropping like flies out of fear for their safety.

Willis’ decision to leave behind millions of dollars comes down to his life after football.

“Honestly, I pay attention to guys when they’re finished playing, walking around like they’ve got no hips and they can’t play with their kids,” he said in a press conference March 10. “They can barely walk … For me, there’s more to my life than football. It has provided an amazing platform for me to build on, but it’s my health first and everything else just kind of makes sense around it.”

Can’t fault that logic.

More and more NFL players are realizing there is more to life than football, and those players are taking advantage of those opportunities as they can.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall retired in 2013 at age 26 and has since became a writer. Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds retired last week to “pursue other interests.” By doing so, he is leaving behind the nearly $8 million he was set to make in 2015.

Glen Coffee, a former Alabama and San Francisco 49ers cornerback, retired in 2010 to enlist in the U.S. Army.

Then there’s Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker, who retired after four seasons in the NFL because he said he no longer had the desire to play.

Locker’s reasoning isn’t surprising, however. Many players put in their time, make a good amount of money and walk away from the game.

It’s not out of the ordinary for players to retire during the primes of their respective careers, either.

Hall of Fame running backs Jim Brown and Barry Sanders retired early. When Brown walked away, he was the career leader in rushing yards (12,312) and touchdowns (126). Sanders — my favorite NFL player of all time — could have shattered Walter Payton’s career rushing record many years before Emmitt Smith did, but instead walked away from the Detroit Lions weeks before training camp in 1999.

But the focus recently has been on Borland, who walked away at 24 years old and fresh off his rookie season.

Many across the country are saying his unexpected retirement will tarnish the NFL and its product.

Doug Inman and Tim Millspaugh, two figureheads for football in Jay County, think Borland’s decision won’t affect the sport in the area.

“My guess is (Borland) may be an exception to the rule,” said Inman, vice president of Jay County Pee Wee Football’s board of directors. “Kids are looking up to Peyton (Manning) and Marshawn Lynch, thinking ‘I could be that guy instead of the guy that has concerns of his safety.’”

With help from a grant from The Portland Foundation, Jay County Pee Wee Football purchased more than 140 air bladder helmets to help with player safety at the youth level. Additionally, all Pee Wee coaches are now required to attend a USA Football Heads Up coaching clinic in Indianapolis.

“We’re doing all we can to ensure safety,” Inman said.

Millspaugh thinks Borland’s decision may have positive impact on area youth, encouraging them not to take injuries lightly.

“The education is valuable,” said Millspaugh, Jay County’s football coach. “The big thing is getting kids to understand there is a fine line between being tough and crazy.

“What Borland did to kids by stepping away … kids might not fight through the pain (of an injury).”

As Millspaugh mentioned, education is the key to ensuring safety in a violent sport such as football. That’s why the Patriot coach spends so much time in the summer working on the fundamentals of tackling — the most basic of which is keeping the head up and being able to see what the tackler is hitting.

Sure, Borland’s decision to walk away from the NFL leaves some scratching their heads wondering why. But it shouldn’t deter players from the sport, or any sport for that matter.

There are risks with playing every sport at the professional level, not just football.

A pitcher in baseball can take a line drive to the face, or a batter like Giancarlo Stanton can take a 90-plus MPH fastball to the jaw.

A hockey player can absorb a slap shot with his teeth, get checked from behind and break his neck (like Steve Moore) or be the recipient of a serious laceration from a skate.

And in basketball, a player can have a compound leg fracture, like Paul George and Kevin Ware.

Injuries happen in sports. Retiring out of health concerns will happen as well.

Doing everything possible to prevent injuries is what’s important.

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