He was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year this season and won second-team All-America honors. For the second straight season he was an All-Big Ten first-team selection, this time as one of just two players from the conference garnering a first-place vote from every coach.
Whether it’s Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Michigan’s Brady Hoke or Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, they all admire Chris Borland, the Wisconsin linebacker out of Alter High School who plays the game like a whirling dervish as he roars sideline to sideline tackling anything in sight.
He had 40 more tackles than anyone on his team this season even though he missed nearly two games due to injury. His 14 career forced fumbles are a Big Ten record.
Off the field, he has been even more forceful.
He leads all Wisconsin athletes — male, female, in every sport — in hours spent volunteering in the community. You’d never hear that from him, though. He’s not a self-promoter.
But Wisconsin’s Kayla Gross, the Badgers’ community relations director, has kept tabs and will tell you that this season alone Borland has spent well over 100 hours visiting elementary schools and hospitals and spearheading his own charitable effort after starting Wisconsin’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes, which matches college athletes with people with rare diseases to help raise awareness and research money.
Last Sunday, with his 3.0 grade-point average in tow, he graduated from Wisconsin with a history degree. Wednesday, he leads the 9-3 Badgers against No. 8 South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
On Jan. 25 he will play in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and after that he’ll ready himself for the NFL draft, where he’ll likely be a second- or third-round pick.
And yet, Borland claims he’s nothing but a warm-up act when it comes to his six siblings.
“Look, football is popular and I’ve gotten a lot of recognition,” he said quietly. “But I’m far from the most accomplished Borland. I’m just struggling to keep up.”
Jeff and Zebbie Borland raised seven kids on Avon Way in Kettering.
Chris was the second-youngest and one of the more active, said Zebbie:
“He’d get up in the morning, grab something to eat and be out the door and play all day long. The kids — the boys and their sister, too — played rough and tumble in the backyard. There was a neighborhood full of kids, too, and they all weren’t in somebody’s yard, there was an elementary school at the top of the hill (St. Albert the Great) and the games would end up there.”
Although four of the Borland boys would go on to play in college, be it football, basketball or soccer, sports wasn’t the only familial pursuit, Chris said:
“Sarah was a dancer, Luke is into music, two of my brothers are captains in the Army and served in Afghanistan and Iraq. My parents gave us freedom to explore and find what we’re interested in and that shows now.”
Joe, the oldest of the Borland boys, lettered in five sports at Alter, went on to Miami University where he was a cheerleader, then went to Toledo and got his law and MBA degrees. He joined the Army, is a lawyer in the JAG (Judge Advocate General’s) Corps, did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now based at Fort Campbell, Ky., where he and his wife just had their second child.
John, a two-sport athlete at Alter, graduated from West Point with a mechanical engineering degree, played soccer there, served in Iraq and is now stationed in Germany. He, too, has a new son and soon will return to the University of Texas, where he’s been accepted in the MBA program.
“Joe and John have really given me perspective,” Chris said. “People sometimes think our game is life or death, but it’s far from that important and I’ve always understood that. Having two brothers fighting in wars kind of reinforced that. They sacrificed a lot in their lives — their families did, too — and I’m real proud of them. They are my role models.”
Sarah, a gymnast and cheerleader at Alter and a longtime Irish dancer here in town, went on to Ohio University — where she was a club rugby player — and then taught in Chicago before moving with her husband to Austin, Texas. She also just had a child, a daughter born in August.
Mark, part of Alter’s 1999 state champion basketball team, played college ball at Wittenberg, graduated from the University of Dayton law school and is now a local attorney.
Matt was an All-American soccer player at Wittenberg and now is a salesman in Columbus. Luke, the youngest, is a senior at Alter, plays percussion in the band, is an Eagle Scout, president of the German club and has founded a car club. He has been accepted at Miami and, in Chris’s words, “he’s probably the smartest in the family.”
Yet, all that said, there can’t be a more determined Borland than Chris.
‘A rifle shot’
Although he was a two-way football player and four-sport athlete at Alter, Borland didn’t garner much big-time college interest prior to his stellar senior season. The problem for some was his size. At 5-foot-11, he was — erroneously — considered too short to dominate at the next level.
Ohio State showed little interest. Miami University said it wanted to review his first three games as a senior before it offered a scholarship.
On his own, Borland already was immersing himself in a be-all-you-can-be program.
“We talked about what he’d like to do and what it would take and he started preparing in earnest a good year and a half before he got out of high school,” Jeff recalled.
“From the start I told him if you really want to do that, you’re not likely to find someone who wants to do it with you. It’s something you’ll have to do on your own and he took that to heart and worked hard.”
The effort showed when his brother Joe and sister Sarah took him to a three-day summer football camp at Wisconsin before his senior season.
“He got in every line there,” Zebbie said with a laugh. “He told the coaches, ‘I’ll punt for you if that will get me on the team. I can play offense or defense, whatever you want.’ ”
Bret Bielema was the head coach then and was impressed enough that he offered a scholarship on the spot.
Chris called home to ask his parents what they thought, but as Jeff said, “Chris going to Wisconsin was a rifle shot. That’s where he always wanted to go.”
Chris’s grandfather had been a diver at Wisconsin and Jeff had grown up in Madison .
“The boys were Packer fans and followed Wisconsin, too.” Jeff said. “On Sundays they’d put on their Packers shirts and so would their grandma and they’d call each other back and forth when the game was on.”
Wisconsin’s signing coup became more evident during Chris’s senior season when he won first-team All-State honors as a defensive player and, as a running back, ran for 1,230 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Once he got to Wisconsin he said the building blocks of coach Ed Domsitz’s program at Alter — “discipline and knowing how to put in a good day’s work” — served him well.
By his sophomore season he had become one of the Big Ten’s elite defenders. In fact, that year he — rather than Nebraska’s Lavonte David, who won the award — could have been the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. He had 143 tackles, 19 for a yardage loss, and forced five fumbles.
“It wasn’t until that season that I truly felt like a football player,” he said. “At Alter and early in my career at Wisconsin, I don’t feel I did a lot of blocking and tackling, which is the essence of the game. I just ran around out there playing backyard football.
“But as the years went by here, I feel like I really developed into a linebacker, a football player, not just a guy running around. I’m not going to say I mastered it, but I really became comfortable on the field.”
Over the past three seasons he’s averaged 9.5 tackles a game and this year he didn’t miss a beat even though he moved to the inside when the Badgers switched to a 3-4 defensive scheme.
That’s what the coaches saw and it helped him win the Player of the Year honor over OSU’s Ryan Shazier.
“The fact that the coaches around the league vote on it speaks volumes and I really appreciate their respect,” Borland said. “And I’m proud of what our team has done and how we’ve done it — we’ haven’t had any off-the-field incidents, which is tough to say in college football these days. We had hoped for a little more team success. Although I appreciate my honors, I’d rather we were 12-0 right now.”
That team-first attitude and personal humility is why Wisconsin fans have so embraced him in his five seasons there. But that outlook didn’t come from being Badger, it was hammered home back here in Kettering.
“He hasn’t let any of this go to his head and how could he? His siblings are a tough crowd to please,” Jeff said with a chuckle. “They keep him grounded for sure. He knows he can’t get away with any of that around them.”
Like Chris Borland said: “I’m just struggling to keep up.”