Tuf Borland is perhaps the greatest proof we have that The Tortoise and the Hare has no valuable lessons to offer — at least when it comes to college football.
As a kid, before figuring out what was really going on with the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, the first time I can remember questioning my parents was also the first time I heard this story. Even as a kindergartener, it was incomprehensible to me that anyone with such supreme talent and speed would handicap themselves in the middle of a competition.
Why did the hare not just take a nap after the race if he could finish it so quickly? Why was the Tortoise so confident he would win knowing his limitations? There was no way he could have known that the hare would just nod off in the middle of a sprint, so was his plan just to waddle to the end and hope for the best?
No, this is not how a five-year-old’s brain should work. But there comes a time in all our lives when we begin to question the things we are told, and this story was nonsense to me from the beginning.
Gifted people at the height of their craft—particularly those in the public eye—do not relent in their competitive spirit out of sheer arrogance. Even in cases where notable athletes have let up before the finish, it is often only because they have thoroughly dominated their opponents ahead of time. Usain Bolt may have added seconds onto his 2008 Olympic 100m time because he was celebrating, but you probably would too if you were in the process of obliterating a world record.
People do not reach the top of their game or industry by waiting on their peers. The best of the best go for the throat, they do not hesitate or delay. They run through the finish line.
This was all I could ponder the night of the National Championship back in January, as I watched the only three-time defensive captain in Ohio State history hopelessly pursue the first Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver in three decades.
That evening was no Tortoise and the Hare situation, and there would be no relent from DeVonta Smith. Tuf Borland spent the entire title game running after the best position player in college football the same way a three-legged dog would chase a mailman driving a USPS Ferrari — mostly as a result of an incredibly poor defensive scheme.
I felt very confident going into the National Championship that Ohio State was going to lose. Even coming off the euphoria of the Clemson victory, Alabama simply had too much offensive firepower for a defense that Buckeye fans watched fail most of the stress tests thrown at it throughout the season. Given the unfortunate reality, I felt good about the prospects of not getting upset regardless of the result.
Borland had been playing significant snaps for Ohio State going back to the fall of 2017 by this point, so loyal Ohio State football viewers already knew plenty about who he was. Tuf is objectively an all-world linebacker first name with limitless nickname potential. Borland also had good technique, strong legs, and a smart head; he would have been exactly the type of defensive player that made the Chicago Bears an institution 80 years ago.
Borland was the Bizzaro-Ryan Shazier. Though Tuf had much better tackling form, there was also no chance he would ever beat Antonio Brown in a 40 yard dash. It is reasonable that most linebackers would not have the speed or agility of a slot receiver, but Borland was a special case in that he was both especially slow and viewed as taking away a starting role from someone more athletically gifted than himself — i.e. Baron Browning.
Tuf Boreland is a LB prospect in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 1.32 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 1839 out of 2118 LB from 1987 to 2021.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 30, 2021
Splits projected, times unofficial.https://t.co/on5CotPgd8 #RAS pic.twitter.com/QTzl31GIl0
Baron Browning is a LB prospect in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 9.98 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 5 out of 2118 LB from 1987 to 2021.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 30, 2021
Splits projected, times unofficial.https://t.co/9u2aj8ZlSN #RAS pic.twitter.com/teVgAT1x01
Naturally, this caused an enormous amount of frustration for many Ohio State fans over several seasons, and the pent-up rage finally had a tangible reason to come out as the Buckeye defense unraveled for all of America to see. The worst part of watching Borland, even if he made Ohio State’s defense less effective, was that the team was so much better everywhere else, his lack of speed never resulted in a loss for which the blame fell directly on him. At least in the heat of the moment on Jan. 11th, it was hard to divert the blame elsewhere.
And Tuf Borland was a three-time team captain! THREE! The only other player in the ~150 year history of Ohio State football to receive such an honor was J.T. Barrett, and he had to write Drew Brees out of the Big Ten career record books on the way to doing it.
By comparison, Borland finished his senior season at middle linebacker with 48 total tackles, 14 of which came in the National Championship. Only 19 of his 229 career tackles resulted in a loss of yards, or barely 8% of all tackles he made. Despite operating at the core of the Ohio State defense, Borland forced four total turnovers across 44 games in four years while failing to record more than five tackles in 30 of those contests. He may be the only multi-year starting middle linebacker in the history of Ohio State football that never recovered a fumble.
Borland was objectively not a great linebacker, at times burdened his defensive teammates, appeared to hold back some of the highly-touted football players behind him, and yet the only people that dislike the guy are Ohio State fans. The players obviously liked having him around, the coaches were clearly enamored with him, and his home town of Bolingbrook, IL never missed an opportunity to remind the world where their favorite Buckeye grew up.
What did everyone within the football program see that outsiders could not?
In youth sports, there is almost always one kid on the roster that makes most of the rest of the team wonder, “what are they doing here?” I played on many teams across a few different sports in my childhood, and encountered more than a few kids that fell under this umbrella. The most memorable of all was a teammate I had on my sixth grade baseball team. We will call him Bobby.
Bobby could not run. He could stand on his own, walk around, and do just about anything any other able-bodied child could, but he could not run.
Nobody knew the truth of what had happened to him, but at some point when he was very young, Bobby had been in a traumatic accident that caused serious injuries to his legs. Worse yet, the accident wrought a psychological trauma on him that was so horrible, he was convinced that his legs would break again if he exerted them too much. Bobby’s brain absolutely would not allow him to move fast under any circumstances, including when he played sports.
A conversation about mental health was not an easy one to have with anybody in 2006, but for most children back then, the concept was almost entirely foreign. To many of the other kids in our school that knew of Bobby’s condition, the idea of being “too scared to run” was comical. Details of the accident were unclear, but what was clear to everyone was Bobby had to take the widest stance he possibly could and thrust his legs forward with his hips whenever he needed to move faster than walking.
This immensely frustrated some of his baseball teammates. My father was head coach and had the unenviable task of finding a field position for an essentially stationary player. With my parent at the other end of the dugout, I had to consistently be on my best behavior, but this was not so easy for many of my other teammates that wanted to win.
One of my best friends—a perennially travel-caliber baseball player at the time—relayed to me privately that Bobby was a burden for us and would ultimately be the end of our season at some point. There was a looming sense of dread in the dugout every inning that my dad asked Bobby to play outfield instead of catcher, but no one dared to make that known to Bobby himself.
In the middle of the season, one player blamed Bobby’s disability for a fielding error that put the game out of reach—even though the error never would have happened had that same player not committed an earlier error in the same sequence. When another teammate brought this up to the player, a fistfight broke out on the bench. Bobby thankfully was far away when it happened and never learned of the confrontation.
Bobby was the team scapegoat and he never even knew it. If he did know it, he certainly never brought it up to any of us, or even let us know that it bothered him.
The Wikipedia summary of Tuf Borland’s college career consists of the following paragraph:
Though Greg McElory clearly now moonlights as a wiki janitor, even the most fervent of Borland haters would likely agree this is a bit unfair. Nobody that earns a “C” on their jersey three seasons in a row deserves to have half their legacy summarized by one memory.
Jarred Tuf Borland is one of the most decorated academic football players in Ohio State history. He made the Academic All-Big Ten team three times and earned OSU Scholar-Athlete honors all four years on his way to obtaining a Human Development and Family Sciences degree. U.S. Rep Anthony Gonzalez is probably the only Buckeye football player in the last 20 years that can stand toe-to-toe with Borland on that front. Meanwhile, my most notable academic achievement as a Fisher student was convincing the College of Veterinary Medicine not to try marketing Buckeye Dog Food.
Borland also tore his Achilles in 2018 during spring practice, one of the most difficult injuries for athletes to recover their previous form from — and likely a huge reason for his lack of speed in the seasons that followed. Less than six months after an injury that can carry a recovery timeline of up to a year, Borland stepped on the field as a captain for the first time against Rutgers. I have to imagine an entire offseason of witnessing Borland work himself back from disaster that quickly made a pretty significant impression on the entire football operation.
But none of the fans see that. Alums and admirers alike move on, look for jobs, seek out partners, and try to put their lives together. We check back in for a State of the Ohio Union every August leading up to the first kickoff, then spend fall living for Saturdays with only a fraction of the enthusiasm we once had on campus. It is not that we have grown bitter, life simply becomes too busy for the religious football experience we once enjoyed.
All the fans saw was that Borland ended his first game as an Ohio State defensive team captain with three total tackles—none solo. He followed that up with a one-tackle performance in the West Lafayette Massacre six weeks later.
Arguably the greatest game of Borland’s career came against Maryland a month after the Purdue loss. Against the Terrapins, he recorded seven solo tackles, four tackles for a loss, and a sack. Anthony McFarland also ran for two yards shy of 300 that day, while Maryland completed seven total passes yet still turned Greg Schiano into a pasty crab bisque.
That Borland was even able to play football at that point—let alone take a team leadership role upon himself—should have been endlessly celebrated. But as a faltering defense salted away the College Football Playoff hopes for a team that boasted one of the most explosive passing attacks in school history, fans were left stewing.
Miles Gaskin then spent the Rose Bowl evading Borland with the ease and grace of a pontoon drifting around a glacier. Still, Tuf recovered the onside kick to ice the victory.
With the team never losing outside the College Football Playoff in the next two seasons, there was hardly much more for Ohio State fans to complain about. In truth, there are probably not many other linebackers in college football history that can say they went 41-4 over their entire career, with half of those losses coming in the postseason.
But this defense ran out of places to hide and time to get better when finally forced to square off against an undeniable offensive juggernaut. A pass defense that blundered all season and never got into rhythm due to cancellations struggled to generate answers when staring down impending doom. Kerry Coombs panicked, trotted out a 4-4 alignment, and the hare let the tortoise know how the real world works.
Despite all the resolve and success it took to get to this stage, a three-time team captain was now a nationally-witnessed pariah as he was forced to cover a player that everyone on the planet knew he simply had no chance against — not many people do.
My sixth grade baseball team was middle-of-the-pack for our league that season. We did not have much of any offensive talent, but we had good pitching, played great defense, and one of the best coaches around—though I am a bit biased. We were very much a “bend-don’t-break” unit that would drop some bad games, but beat other squads we had no business winning against. If my sixth grade baseball team played Big Ten Basketball, we would have definitely been in the mix for a conference title in most of the recent seasons.
As fate would have it, we drew the best offensive team in the league for our playoff semi-final game. I do not remember all the details of that night, but I do remember sitting in the dugout for my off-inning while the game was still tied and Bobby was in the outfield.
By some sheer miracle, Bobby had not gotten shelled with baseballs at any point during the season when he had to play a position other than catcher. He may have had a few hits get behind him, but that happens to a ton of kids in middle school baseball, and nothing had occurred yet that anyone would consider wholly confidence-shattering.
Bobby had somewhere between three and five consecutive baseballs pulled to him in left field during that inning. I do not remember if my dad eventually removed him from the outfield out of mercy—but looking back, I am not even sure I would have wanted him to. It was an impossible situation either way. Do you leave Bobby in there to continue to get made a spectacle of, or would it be worse to march him into the dugout immediately after giving up the hits that would end his team’s title hopes?
I may not remember if Bobby stayed in or not, but I do vividly remember pondering if the other team made the deliberate decision to go after him that inning. Most sixth graders do not have enough bat control yet to pull off directional hitting, but I will never forget watching someone in the other dugout mock Bobby’s fast-walk to the delight of their teammates after the third passed ball.
Our season ended that night. Most of us were unhappy, I was not quite sure how to feel. After having watched someone that struggled with an impossible-to-explain issue get forced into public ridicule, the pursuit of championship trophy lost some of its luster.
Bobby eventually returned to the dugout unfazed. He was happy. He was almost always happy, at least from what we could see. He had one of the best smiles on the team and was constantly brimming with optimism. Even if presented with a scenario where he knew he had to move as quickly as possible, he never grimaced or felt sorry for himself—no matter how many times he saw multiple cutoffs coming to his aid.
He should have always been our inspiration, never our scapegoat.
I only went to school with Bobby for two more years after that season ended, but he was still smiling whenever I saw him. Years later when we happened on each other working in different departments of the same music festival, he was still just as happy as he was back then. He was delighted to see me, even after us not having interacted since baseball.
I will never understand how he held such a positive attitude in the face of so much unjust negativity. I will always admire him for it. I only wish everyone else and I realized it sooner.
Trey Sermon got injured on the first play of the National Championship. He had 522 rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship and the Sugar Bowl combined. He was on an Ezekiel Elliot-esque rampage. Unfortunately, team-leading position players getting injured on the first play of the title game has happened to this school before.
It is quite gracious to Alex Boone that the above video is just 18 seconds.
There are endless reasons a team can and will lose a football game. Some happen before the game even begins. Others happen unexpectedly, in the blink of an eye. Some do not become apparent until long after the game ends. Jim Harbaugh can offer Buckeye fans much insight on all of these reasons.
But I will never choose to blame a contributing player for the loss of a team game. Borland played the role of leader by example long before he was a captain, continued to do so longer than almost anyone else in school history, and never sought credit for any success the defense achieved as long as he was a part of it.
Perhaps more amazingly, Borland never allowed any of the fan negativity get to him. Even now, he appears to be gearing up for a run at a football career. In fairness to him, if he can land a roster spot for a full four months, Borland will have the longest NFL career of any three-time captain in Ohio State history.
Bobby is now an analyst at a nationwide investment group. He is also a University of Alabama graduate and football fan.
I think he and Tuf would be good friends despite that.