Chris Borland returns home to promote peace in wake of Dayton shooting

Tim BrownMLB columnist
Mourners bring flowers to a makeshift memorial Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, for the slain and injured in the Oregon District after a mass shooting that occurred early Sunday morning, in Dayton. (AP)
Mourners bring flowers to a makeshift memorial Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, for the slain and injured in the Oregon District after a mass shooting that occurred early Sunday morning, in Dayton. (AP)

A city, even a small one like Dayton, Ohio, can’t be carried from the field. It can’t be taped up and sent back in.

A city spills everything, everywhere. And still it does not quit. It cannot quit.

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Where would it go?

When a disturbed young man killed nine people in Dayton and injured 27 others – U.S. mass shooting No. 243 in 2019, deaths 265 through, including the shooter, 274 – Libby Ballengee watched the sun come up on the fourth morning of August and understood it had come close. Her town. Her people. Her peace. She waited to learn how close, for half-a-day until the names were posted. She wondered, then, what next. What then. What could heal this. What could stop the next.

By evening, 18 hours after the final gunshot, thousands gathered in vigil on narrow downtown streets, between brick buildings, in a neighborhood 135 years old. The governor spoke over repeated calls to “do something!” Kevin Kelly stood with them. What he heard was not so much defiance, but discontent. Not so much a command, but a plea. When he looked down, he could see the sidewalks had been scrubbed. He smelled fresh bleach. A man sobbed nearby. In this heart-rending moment in this muddled corner, Kelly found he’d placed his hand on the stranger’s shoulder. The man had lost his son.

“It was so raw,” he said.

Chris Borland was raised with five brothers and a sister in the town of Kettering, 10 minutes south of Dayton by way of Far Hills Avenue, past the golf course, along a curl of the Miami River. He played high school football there. He went to the University of Wisconsin and was an All-American linebacker. He was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round and was on the NFL’s All-Rookie team. Then he stopped playing. It was May 2015. He’d grown wary of the violence in the game, how the big hits and the little ones might have been accumulating in his brain. How they surely were.

At the time, Chris Borland, the bright kid from Middle America who’d grown up in the game, was the epicenter of a national debate over CTE, months after he’d led the 49ers in tackles. He gets phone calls sometimes, from men in the game or just out of it, as they may think he’d seen it coming, that he might know something, seeing as he got out when he did. They say they’re forgetting things, feeling down, scared, and they ask if this is it. They ask if they have it. He says he doesn’t know.

On that fourth morning in August, he awakened in his Venice, California, apartment. He’d become a producer at (Co)Laboratory Studios and a teacher at Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute; he’d been a mental health advocate and podcast host; he’d interned at The Carter Center in Atlanta and prepared to return to school to study neuroscience; and he’d swum the piers from Venice to Santa Monica and surfed the waves in between.

And now Dayton was calling. His town. His people.

His peace.

After being selected in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Chris Borland retired after just one season. (Getty Images)
After being selected in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Chris Borland retired after just one season. (Getty Images)

In a terrible and dark time, in chaos and suffocating sadness, Libby Ballengee, a local community organizer and personality, called it “Lighting your own candle.” Chris Borland called it The Dayton Peace Festival. Scheduled for Oct. 12-14 on the grounds of the Dayton International Peace Museum, he would invite friends, performers, athletes, celebrities, healers and teachers. He would have music and speakers and games and activities. He would have hope, offer love, and that would be his own candle.

He returned to Dayton to create this light, hoping, he didn’t know, to heal one heart or a few or a neighborhood of them, whoever would have it. Maybe that one heart would be his. He’d asked the church – his church – about its standing on life and guns and division, about its responsibility out in front of the shootings and hatred, the evil that fuels them. Its response helped form his. He would do this, then. He would not quit. He would ask his community to come together, as it had for Dave Chappelle’s Gem City Shine event, as it had for the Aug. 4 vigil, as it has for all that Dayton and cities like it endure.

Where else would he go?

“I think,” Borland said, “it was being more uncomfortable with not doing anything than stepping in and taking action. I’d had enough of not doing anything in light of these tragedies. And not doing anything for Dayton.”

He met Kevin Kelly, the director of the Peace Museum, let him in on his vision and asked for help. Within an hour, Kelly had turned over the keys to the downtown building, a 154-year-old three-story mansion. One night, Borland never left, but, he said, “It gets hot on the third floor,” and every night since has returned to the same block in Kettering, to his parents’ home or, four doors down, his brother Mark’s.

His days are spent organizing, seeking volunteers, raising money, rallying Dayton. The Peace Festival will feature panels on gun violence, racism and mental health. A public basketball court on the city’s west side, a historically black area, needs painting and finishing, so he has budgeted for that, too. He returned to his old high school to teach psychology classes. He visited his elementary school. At a local bookstore he bumped into a former football coach. He wonders what is normal, when the stores open and the people go to work, when the Oregon District, the site of the shooting, lights up again, when the children lug their backpacks to the bus stop and back. He wonders if it can be OK again, if this is life now, just hoping to forget or bear up or resist the urge to surrender.

“I do sense more connectivity than I remember,” he said. “People hold the gaze of eye contact a bit longer. There are more hellos, taps on the backs.”

In a matter of months, Dayton, emblematic in many ways of Rust Belt cities wheezing under the weight of opioids, heroin, plant closures, resulting unemployment and poverty, and the flagging self-image that comes with all of it, had endured crippling tornadoes, a Ku Klux Klan rally and, then, as bars let out early one morning in August, on a block that promises laughter and fellowship, a mass shooting.

There’s a bumper sticker in a Dayton bar that reads something along the lines of, “Dayton’s Alright If You’ve Never Been Anywhere Else.” Maybe folks chuckle at that.

“It’s always bothered me,” said Libby Ballengee, who writes a music blog at Dayton.com, supports and organizes cultural events in the city and is known in some circles as The Rock ‘n’ Roll Mayor.

Ballengee grew up 20 minutes west of downtown, left to discover other parts of the world, and instead rediscovered Dayton. She moved back.

“I missed all these down-to-earth people,” she said. “It’s weird to miss the grittiness, but I did.”

In a trying year, amid a trying era, she said, “There’s this great story about how we’re all trying to rescue each other. We’re going to do it again now. The Peace Festival is really trying to heal a lot of those things.”

Some evenings, Chris Borland returns to his brother’s home, to his brother’s three young children, and they go for ice cream. They play board games. Then Uncle Chris falls into a spare mattress, another day gone, another day closer. Mark, older by 10 years, is an attorney with an office next door to the Peace Museum. He has assisted in many of the legal wrangling that comes with a three-day, multi-pronged event his brother hopes will be so much to so many.

“He’s been my little brother for a long time,” Mark said with a laugh. “I’ve seen how he’s evolved, how he’s matured, how he looks at things. In recent years, this is par for the course for the man he’s become.

“On a personal level, I don’t think he’s changed much. But, in terms of how he sees the world, for a long time his only purpose was football, football, football. He’s filled that void with a lot of other pursuits, like he’s constantly searching. … I’ll say, it’s great when you can see him like this, in action. Him doing his thing. It’s impressive to watch from the sidelines.”

That, too, brought Chris back to Dayton, into a city that seeks its normal and then some, into a home – like so many other homes – that must cope with the horror on its doorstep. Now Mark has a 9-year-old daughter who hints she’s afraid to go downtown, who doesn’t want to sleep alone. Now there are victims out there, and families of victims, here and everywhere. There have been dozens of mass shootings across America since, those people in those towns asking the same, and that is what comes after the thoughts and prayers, and who cares enough to help, even to try to help, and when is peace. When?

“I hope,” Kevin Kelly said, “people come to this festival and leave with a better understanding of what peace is. And it’s more complicated than saying it’s the opposite of war. In a lot of ways the enemy is indifference.”

To that end, Chris Borland said, “So many people have been so eager to help.”

All those people on that night in Dayton, the mourning and the angry and the lost, the night they begged for someone to do something, had lit their candles. They had asked for more. They had asked for peace.

So Borland asked students in Dayton to write poems about what peace meant to them, to present plans to sow peace in their communities. And when he is asked what it is to him, what it looked like, what this could all be about, he said, “I’m not going to answer the question. Because I think the kids will.”

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