There’s no such thing as a football gene.
But in the case of Bolingbrook graduate Tuf Borland, now a standout linebacker at Ohio State, there may have been something a little bit more distinctive than random chance that got him to the level he now finds himself.
Borland, a three-time team captain for the Buckeyes, will cap his impressive collegiate career in Monday’s National Championship game against Alabama in Miami, and while it would have been impossible to predict the journey ending in this fashion, it’s certainly easy to see the guideposts along the way that lit the path.
The term “football family” is one that is often overwrought. But in the case of the Borland family, there’s really no other fair way to describe it.
Tuf’s father, Kyle, played under his father in high school, then went onto play at the University of Wisconsin and followed that with a stint with the Michigan Generals of the United States Football League (USFL) and a brief run with the Los Angeles Rams. He now works for Riddell, a prominent helmet manufacturer.
Tuf’s mother, Jennifer, also was the daughter of a high school football coach.
“He’s been to games, since, well, in the womb,” Jennifer Borland said with a laugh. “He and his younger brother (Trevor, a freshman tight end at the University of Buffalo), they don’t know anything different. They just love the game, it makes it easy for them to train because they love it so much.”
That passion and determination for the game showed early in Tuf, so much so that his father began to plant the seeds of what would be required for him to reach the level he hoped to. It didn’t take much prodding to help those seeds grow.
“He made a commitment and he and I had some conversations when he was pretty young. He had his mind set on what he was going to do. He wanted to be a big-time college football player. And that’s what he put his mind to,” Kyle Borland said. “He set his mind on that pretty early, maybe around eighth grade he started to see some of the things he had been working on for a number of years start to come through and it became pretty clear early in his high school days that he’d be able to play college football somewhere.
“Little did we know at that time it would be at Ohio State, and what a great experience it’s been at Ohio State.”
It took Borland very little time to establish himself as an impact player at Ohio State, something that was of basically no surprise to his high school coach John Ivlow.
“”When he came to us he definitely came in as a mature freshman, where we said to his dad that we wanted him to play varsity right away,” Ivlow said. “Both physically and mentally, he really understood the game. Plus, he’s an incredibly hard worker.”
Ivlow also knows some things that people that might critique Borland from time to time don’t know.
“Some people like to bring up when he got beat on something. He’s an inside backer. His job is to force everything outside. You got those other fast guys out there for the perimeter containment,” Ivlow said. “He got picked on a little play on a swing route and it was a foot race to the sideline that he lost, and I saw Twitter light up, and I’m just shaking my head, and then he ends up the player of the game. I just laughed it up.
“You are not going to fool him much, he’s a pretty smart kid.”
That intelligence isn’t limited to just football smarts.
Borland has been an Academic All Big-Ten selection for the last three seasons (2020 honorees have not yet been announced) and has already earned his Master’s Degree in Sports Coaching and his Bachelor’s Degree in Human Development and Family Science. After enrolling early at Ohio State in 2016, Borland used his time efficiently, completing his Bachelor’s degree work in December 2019 well before his expected graduation date and then used the additional time created by the pandemic and waiting for his senior season to resume to finish his graduate studies.
Both the on-field and off-field success is frequently attributed to his personal drive.
“He’s really been an easy kid to raise. I don’t know where it comes from. We’ve never had to say to him let’s go to practice or let’s go work out. He’d be like, ‘Come on, I don’t want to be late,’” Jennifer Borland said. “He was driven early on and he’s stayed that way.”
Borland’s character wasn’t lost on his peers either. Borland also played baseball and basketball at Bolingbrook, and while his former basketball coach Rob Brost acknowledges that while he wasn’t always the most verbal of leaders, his leadership skills were almost omnipresent around teammates.
With him, you know kindness is in the room. You know humbleness is in the room. And that’s rare for any high school kid to have. That speaks to his parents and to him. When Tuf walks in the room, you just know it, you just get a feeling about him that is hard to describe.”— Bolingbrook basketball coach Rob Brost
“He’s not intimidating, I’m talking off the field, he’s almost docile off the field,” Brost said. “But you don’t want to mess up around him. You know you have to do things right. It’s not because he really says anything or looks at you, it’s just the feeling you get when he is around.
“With him, you know kindness is in the room. You know humbleness is in the room. And that’s rare for any high school kid to have. That speaks to his parents and to him. When Tuf walks in the room, you just know it, you just get a feeling about him that is hard to describe.”
Those leadership skills have been put to the test this season.
The pandemic initially put the Big Ten season on hold. While Borland and his teammates waited and hoped to play, he continued to work.
“With any athlete, he’s a creature of habit,” Kyle Borland said. “The best way for him to stay in a daily routine was most important to him and taking it day by day. It ended up working out, and working out to their advantage.”
The season was not without its tribulations either. Borland missed the Michigan State game, snapping a string of 47 consecutive starts for the Buckeyes, a streak that reached back to the kickoff of the 2017 season. After suffering an Achilles tendon injury in the spring of 2018, Borland’s relentless rehabilitation allowed him to be prepared to play at the beginning of that season and also earned team-wise admiration for his efforts as they elected him team captain, a role that he has served for the Buckeyes for the past three seasons. He is just the second player in Ohio State history to be a team captain for three campaigns, former Buckeye quarterback J.T. Barrett (2015-17) is the other.
Regardless of what happens Monday, Borland will finish his Ohio State career with 200-plus tackles to join an exclusive group of players, many of which went on to prominent playing careers in the NFL.
It is yet to be determined whether or not that will be Borland’s next step. Many draft forecasting services have Borland projected as a potential late-round pick. In any case, Borland likely won’t stray from the game that continues to be his touchstone.
“Certainly Tuf would like to take a shot at the next level. And I think he’ll get the opportunity,” Kyle Borland said. “If it never happens, he’s had a great experience with football. But if it does, great, and we’ll have some more fun.”
But for now, that’s on the backburner. And the Borland family, which plans to have as many family members on hand in Miami as they can muster for Monday’s night matchup.
“It’s emotional. Just talking about it now, it kind of makes me want to cry,” Jennifer Borland said. “We’re happy, but we’re also excited for what’s next, whether it is football or coaching. He’s done a really good job. It’s bittersweet. It’s like we are getting to the end, but we’re not going to experience this anymore. It’s just a bunch of emotions.”
Win or lose, Borland’s father knows from experience what his son has taken from the ride that will now culminate on Monday.
“It will be incredible. Last week we were so proud to see him walk out as a team captain,” Kyle Borland said. “It goes so fast. He’s been there five years. It will be on to another part of his life, but its been a wild ride for five years.
“The credit goes to him and him alone, Jenny and I have just been along for the ride and have just enjoyed every piece of it. Ohio State has been fantastic, whatever people think about major college football, they have taken such good care of those kids. They have taken care of him on the field, off the field and in the classroom.”