Chris Borland's stunning retirement because he feared permanent damage from concussions created a national conversation. For Kevin Boss, the news was deeply personal and created so many conflicting emotions, he barely knew where to start.
The most immediate reaction for the former Giants tight end, who was forced into premature retirement by repeated concussions, was happiness for Borland, the 49ers linebacker who decided the risks associated with head trauma weren't worth it. After only one season, in which Borland, 24, led the team in tackles and was considered a rising star, he decided to forgo the potential rewards of a promising career.
"He had the courage to make some really tough decisions,'' Boss, the Giants' fifth-round pick in 2007, told Newsday from his home in Bend, Oregon. "When you're in the game, you're consumed by it and you don't have the foresight to look ahead and really think about your future. You're just thinking that what you're doing is the most significant thing there is. As a young kid, you don't have the wisdom to think about your long-term life. Borland did.''
But along with his initial feelings of relief and respect for Borland's decision came regret. Looking back, Boss wishes he had done the same thing. Wishes he'd had all the information Borland gathered before making a choice that has sent shock waves throughout not only the NFL but the entire sport of football.
Boss, 31, suffered five diagnosed concussions and so many other "dings'' and "bell-ringing'' hits that he is afraid to count them all. The last concussion came in Week 2 of the 2012 season, when he was with the Chiefs.
"I caught a pass I had to jump up high for and stretch out,'' he said. "I came down on my butt, and the [Bills'] safety hit me helmet-to-helmet in the back of the head.''
He was unconscious for more than an hour and initially had no idea what had happened when he woke up in a Buffalo hospital. It was the last play of his career, and it took months for the symptoms, which included headaches, dizziness, nausea and depression, to clear up.
"I wish I would have had the courage to make that decision that Borland made earlier in my career, just because I fear the same things that he does,'' said Boss, who is married and has two boys, ages 2½ and 9 months. "I feel fine now, but that's not to say I'm not scared as hell about what the future can hold. I hope that I got out before there were any long-term effects, but it's definitely something that could creep up, and I worry about it.''
Boss came to the Giants as an unheralded backup tight end out of Western Oregon University, a sturdily built 6-6, 255-pounder with dependable hands and solid blocking technique. He was an understudy to Jeremy Shockey, but after Shockey suffered a broken leg late in the 2007 season, Boss became the starter and was a key contributor in a Super Bowl run.
His biggest fear as a young player wasn't concussions.
"When I first got to the NFL, my biggest concern was breaking my neck,'' he said. "Even when I was in college, I never thought about the ramifications of concussions. I was a Lions fan and I remember watching the game where [Lions offensive lineman] Mike Utley got hurt [in 1991] and was paralyzed. The other thing was blowing out your knee. Concussions were just something you never thought about.''
Even when Boss began to experience concussion problems in 2010, he wasn't overly concerned. "My first couple of concussions, I bounced back quickly,'' he said. "But then they started getting worse. That's when I realized there was a problem.''
Boss is grateful that he has no symptoms now, but he knows he'll never look at the NFL -- or football in general -- quite the same. Now the strength and conditioning coach for Bend Hoops, a basketball training facility, Boss also is an assistant coach for Summit High School's football team. Former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe is the offensive coordinator.
"I can't sit down and watch an NFL game like I used to,'' Boss said. "All I see and all I hear is helmets crashing. I'm often pointing out possible concussions. 'Hey, there's a concussion there' or 'That guy is a little woozy.' ''
NFL senior vice president of health and safety policy Jeff Miller said this past week that the league has made progress in limiting the incidence of concussions and that the NFL's increased emphasis on safety is showing positive results. Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL's competition committee, said total concussions are "down 25 percent from 2013 to 2014. We were down 36 percent since 2012.''
McKay also said penalties for hitting defenseless players are down, suggesting that players are "conforming to the rules, and I think part of it is they're growing up with rules that change the way they play the game.''
Boss remains skeptical. He wants the league to be even more proactive, especially with retired players.
"I don't feel like the NFL has done a really good job of helping retired players seek out that part of the medical attention,'' Boss said. "I feel like we're a little bit on our own. I lost 50 pounds as soon as I was done playing so I could be healthy. I find local doctors here in town. I just don't see or hear enough of those opportunities. Maybe it's just talking to somebody. I would like to see more help and more direction.''
The league and the NFL Players Association have invested tens of millions of dollars into programs for retired players, including plans that focus on head trauma and post-concussion syndrome. Boss thinks, however, that more emphasis needs to be placed on those opportunities.
He still loves the game and considers his four years of high school football his most enjoyable athletic experience. But he admits being conflicted about his role as an assistant coach. He loves seeing the players appreciate the game, but is he unwittingly contributing to a problem he now faces?
"I've had that conversation with my wife several times,'' he said. "She said, 'Do you feel comfortable coaching these kids to do something that ultimately ended your career and is something we both worry about?'
"It's almost like this morality battle, where I think the game is great, especially at the high school level, but at the same time, those kids are just as susceptible to concussions as we were.''
And what about Boss' two sons? Would he allow them to play?
"When I had to retire, I felt there was no chance my kids are playing,'' he said. "But as time goes by, I'm not going to say that. I would be perfectly happy if they chose not to. I hope they don't, but at the same time, high school football is probably the best four years of your life.
"My wife and I joke that hopefully they aren't good enough to play college. They can enjoy the Friday night light experience and go on from there. I love basketball, so I would be thrilled if they wanted to pursue that. But [football] is definitely something my wife and I are nervous about.''
Borland's decision brought those feelings into focus for Boss and for many other former players who have dealt with concussions or worry about their long-term health. Boss thinks Borland won't be the last player to make the decision to retire early in a career.
"I do think this will happen more often,'' he said. "As more decisions like Chris Borland's are made, when that becomes a trend, I think that's going to start more at the youth level. I don't think football is going to become extinct, and I don't want that. But people need to talk about this issue and they need to be aware of it.
"Borland made the decision that it's not worth it, and sometimes I don't know if it was worth it,'' Boss said. "Just living with that fear of 'what am I going to look like down the road?' I'm way too young to worry about those things.''