He felt sick to his stomach.
Chris Borland had awakened in his Los Angeles apartment around 4.a.m. three Sundays ago and happened to glance at his phone. That’s when he saw the dreadful alerts. There had been a mass shooting back home in Dayton’s Oregon District.
The former football star at Alter High School, the University of Wisconsin and with the San Francisco 49ers – a hard-hitting linebacker who four years ago abruptly traded his shoulder pads for a mantle of social activism, a consciousness that now would lead to the Dayton Peace Festival in October – had been back in Dayton the week before the shooting for a wedding and had hung out in the Oregon District.
Now he was learning how an armor-clad gunman with a modified AR-15 weapon had killed nine people and injured 37 in a murderous 30-second spree in the popular entertainment district just past 1 a.m..
“I felt helpless,” Borland said. “I was thousands of miles away and I wanted to do something. I have benefitted so much from the Dayton community over the years and I wanted to help in some way now.”
As the day went on, he reached out to family and friends, read everything he could about the situation and was struck by one particular response.
He had grown up in the parishes of St. Albert the Great and St. Charles Borromeo in Kettering and graduated from Archbishop Alter, so his Catholic underpinnings had been strong. But he thought the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s initial response to the Dayton murders was underwhelming, at best.
He started to jot down his thoughts, slept on them and the following day had others read them first before sending them on to Archbishop Dennis Schnurr.
He thought the church could do more. While he noted it does “great work on the ground,” he felt the times now required “bolder leadership” and he urged the church to “lead as Christ would.”
He offered three suggestions:
•That the church frame gun control as a pro-life stance
•That the church condemn white supremacy, which spurred the shootings that preceded Dayton’s in El Paso and Gilroy, California.
•And that the church hold politicians who are parishioners accountable. He said he was referring to those who use the Lord’s name and talk about God to get elected, then once in office don’t embody those values.
He followed up his initial message to Schnurr with additional text messages, emails and phone messages – six in all – but at first got no response.
NPR got wind of his impassioned plea and soon the points of his letter were circulating in social media. He finally was contacted by the media director of the archdiocese and they had a constructive conversation.
That’s when Borland realized he needed to pivot to positivity.
“I wanted to transition quickly from calling someone out and being critical to doing something positive,” he said. “And that’s when the idea for the Peace Festival came to mind.”
Borland has spent the past two weeks putting it together and here’s what he has so far:
It will be a three-day celebration of hope, healing and thought-provoking discussion – October 12, 13 and 14 – held at the Dayton Peace Museum on West Monument Street downtown and at a new basketball court Borland has helped build along West Third Street near the Greater Dayton Recreation Center at Roosevelt Commons.
Along with music, games, food and daily yoga and mindfulness sessions, he said there will be a series of discussions on gun violence, racism and mental health that will involve national experts, state and local policy makers and Dayton area people directly impacted by those issues.
Borland hopes of have one of the recipients of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize give an evening presentation and there will be a writing and peace plan competition for Dayton-area students.
He’s working on commitments from area athletes – especially from Ohio State football and University of Dayton and Wright State basketball – local clergy members and some national celebrities and sports figures he has access to through his position as an executive producer with the Santa Monica based (Co) Laboratory that links athletes and sports teams with a variety of storytelling platforms from TV ventures to podcasts.
It was with this same conscientious fervor that Borland made his heart-wrenching decision to quit playing the game he had loved.
After completing a glorious rookie season with San Francisco in 2014 – he led the 49ers in tackles and was named to the NFL’s All Rookie team – he made a decision that rippled throughout the league.
Because of concerns about the violent collisions that regularly occur in the game, the concussions that come with them and their link to CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) that has afflicted so many former players, he promptly walked away from a million-dollar contract and the cusp of NFL greatness.
He didn’t expect the tsunami wave of scrutiny, debate, criticism and embrace that would come with his decision.
Borland has never been one to seek the spotlight or toot his own horn, but he didn’t duck the responsibility that came with his decision.
He soon was part of scientific studies and campus lectures. He was the subject of countless magazine, newspaper and TV pieces. He appeared on shows like Face the Nation, CBS This Morning and ESPN’s Outside the Lines.
Most of all he became an advocate – in some instances a trusted confidante – of many players still in the league and especially those struggling in retirement.
Just this past February he testified before Congress about the way the football establishment – especially the NCAA and the Department of Defense, which collaborated on a study on concussions in 2014 — manipulates the numbers and science of brain injuries.
Although he’s just 28, ESPN dubbed him “the most dangerous man in football.”
Just as he didn’t shy away from the CTE issue, he wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines now following the deadly attack on the Oregon District.
“I never wanted to say that, after a shooting in my hometown, I didn’t do everything I could to help,” he said. “And I think a lot of other people feel the same way. All the athletes I’ve talked to so far basically say, ‘Anything you need, I’m in.’
“It’s a desire, an eagerness to celebrate the good in Dayton and help in the healing of the community a little bit, too.”
Time for growth
He grew up on Avon Way in Kettering, one of Jeff and Zebbie Borland’s seven kids. All of them excelled in sports, music or dance, but none more so than Chris.
The team captain and MVP at Alter, he led the Knights to a state title and won first-team All Oho honors.
He then won three Big Ten titles at Wisconsin, was a three-time All-Big Ten first teamer and in 2013 was named an All American and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Although under-sized at 5-foot-11 and 248 pounds, Borland was a take-no-prisoners, whirling dervish on the field and the 49ers made him a third-round pick in 2014. That season he became one of the most talked about young players in the league.
But he had grown more and more conscious of the toll the game was taking on him – he believes he’s had as many as 13 concussions in his career – and the price others were paying.
The list of dead NFL stars found to have had CTE is staggering: Hall of Famer Junior Seau, Super Bowl champs John Mackey, Dave Duerson and Mike Webster, All Pros Andre Waters and Cookie Gilchrst and Cincinnati Bengals standout receiver Chris Henry.
The league predicts 6,000 of its 20,000 ex-players will one day suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Against that backdrop, Borland decided to quit football. He paid back most of his signing bonus and began trying to refocus his life. It wasn’t always easy and he admits he struggled at times.
That’s when he looked into meditation and the more he got into it, the more he felt uplifted. Today, among other things, he teaches mediation at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute.
With football no longer consuming his life, he had time to grow in so many other directions and in the process you saw more and more who Chris Borland is: a man of conscious, intelligence, curiosity and compassion.
He’ll have a podcast out this winter and is working on a TV show for next summer that will feature NFL players transitioning from the league and learning to surf with the World Surf League.
He said the show will be called “Washed Up.”
While doing mental health work at the Carter Center – the nonprofit entity started by former president Jimmy Carter and his wife. Rosalynn, to advance human rights — Borland said he first learned of the Dayton International Peace Museum.
Opened in 2005, it’s housed in the 1865 Isaac Pollack house and is believed to be the only stand-alone peace museum in the Americas.
Borland felt it would be “the perfect place” to house the Dayton Peace Festival and reached out to the organization’s new executive director, Kevin Kelly, who was on vacation in Denver.
Originally from Springfield, Kelly had been a school teacher in Charleston, S.C, when a 21-year-old white supremacist opened fire during a prayer service at the cherished Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston. Nine people were killed and three survived the racist attack.
“I used to take my students to that church, it’s called the Mother AME Church,” Kelly said. “The mother of one of my students died in the basement of the church that night.”
Kelly has drawn on experiences like that since taking over the Peace Museum job 10 months ago.
He said he has been committed to changing the museum’s focus to “more about social justice. We’re interested in keeping up with what happens not only internationally and nationally, but specifically what happens here in Dayton. We’re more interested in current events and direct action.”
Borland pursued Kelly with the same zeal he sought Schnurr.
“I was on vacation, but I checked my social media and I had messages from him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook,” Kelly said with a laugh. “I was like this guy really wants to talk!’”
And when they did, Kelly said he was impressed:
“Chris was absolutely earnest that he wanted to do something proactive – he wanted to find solutions – and he wanted to do it quickly..
“I was on board with him right away. We had been trying to think of things here that we could do and this was perfect.”
Committed to the community
Borland came back to Dayton 10 days ago to meet Kelly for the first time and begin to put together an expansive venture that is just seven weeks away.
In a perfect alignment of the stars, Ohio State football has a bye the weekend of the festival and the Cincinnati Bengals, Dayton Flyers and Miami RedHawks football teams are all on the road.
Borland visited Ohio State’s practice the other day and talked to some former and current players about taking part in the festival, especially Buckeyes’ defensive lineman Robert Landers, the Wayne High product whose brother Trey plays basketball for the Dayton Flyers.
Both of them are committed to their community and know about gun violence, too. Their father was shot and killed outside a muffler repair shop on Salem Avenue when they were youngsters.
Borland has gotten commitments from some other area athletes and is working on securing national figures he wants to bring to town.
The other day as he took me on tour of the Peace Museum, we came across a stack of his Wisconsin football jerseys that had been left on a table in an empty, third-floor room.
“Those are all my bowl game jerseys,” he explained. “Three are from Rose Bowls, there’s one from the Capital One Bowl and another from the Champs Sports Bowl. I’m going to auction them off to raise money for our weekend festival.
“Hopefully some Wisconsin boosters will step up and buy them. It would be good for their bar or man cave or whatever.”
He said if people want to help raise funds, get involved or just have questions about the festival, they can go to the website: daytonpeacefestival.com.
“We hope to come together for three days and have these important conversations while also celebrating our community and showing a unity among the different races, religious beliefs and lifestyles across the city,” he said. “And in the process we can make people aware of the Peace Museum and the new court in West Dayton.”
He said he hopes it will be an annual effort that offers something besides the same “thoughts and prayers” clichés that so many politicians offer up, but then provide no follow up with it.
Kelly agreed: “That really gets me going. When politicians use that phrase, it’s too often just a platitude. It’s almost like stalling. It’s hard to argue with, but I’ve started to lately.”
Ever the pivoter, Borland said: “It’s not an ‘either-or’ question, it’s a ‘Yes…and now what?’ deal. Thoughts and prayers are great, but you should be asking, ‘OK, what comes next?’
“I feel like the Dayton Peace Festival is kind of like our answer to ‘now what?’ We actually are doing something.”
Chris Borland may have left football, but he’s showing he still can firmly tackle whatever is in front of him.