Sacrificing the good for the great

by Barnabas Piper

Posted on Friday, March 20, 2015, at 3:03 pm

Something happened last week that turned the American pursuit of wealth and fame on its head. One of the most promising young stars in one of the most lucrative professions walked away from piles of money and heaps of fame before even reaching his peak. Why would he do this?

Chris Borland is—correction, was—a star linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers. Last season he burst onto the scene as a rookie rather unexpectedly, filling a vacancy left by an injured Patrick Willis, one of the best in the NFL. Last Friday, Borland notified team management he was retiring. Borland is in good health, is an ascending star, and was slated to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars with millions more awaiting. Is he crazy?

Not in the slightest. Borland was simply willing to take the long view of his life, so unusual in a young man. After a vicious collision in practice last season, he began researching the post-career effects of head injuries. He learned about the potential cost of continuing an NFL career: permanent brain damage or even death. Borland knew himself too—his competitive drive and aggressive playing style wouldn’t allow him to go at any speed less than full. In viewing all of this, he considered the risks and rewards of continuing to play football and of walking away (while he can still walk). Borland then made the difficult decision to retire at age 24.

It was not a clear-cut choice, not black-and-white. The decision Borland made was not the right one. It seems to be a right one, but that doesn’t make it a moral standard by which any other football player can be judged. Had Borland decided to continue playing, that could have been a good choice too. Such vagueness is what makes decisions like this so difficult, but people often balk at vagueness. It is uncomfortable because it’s complex.

What Borland exhibited while facing a difficult, complicated choice was something we all should emulate when we find ourselves deliberating about something unclear. He showed persistence to collect the information he needed, even if it was unpleasant. He showed patience to sort through it, considering the present and the future, the costs and the benefits. He looked far enough into the future to determine that delaying gratification would increase it then and give peace now. Borland was willing to make a sacrifice of something good to pursue what he sees as a greater gain, and that is a mark of maturity.

Imagine if you and I processed choices the same way and were self-aware enough to know we need to. What could be different? Would we pursue a different career or mission? Would we recognize greater value in serving and giving? What relationships might we invest in differently and better? What good things might we set aside to invest longer term in great things? If a 24-year-old football player can do it, we can too. 

Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.

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