There’s a great chance that had Kyle and Jeny Borland named their first son Jimmy, he still would have grown up to be a football player of some repute, another branch of the family tree.

But Kyle Borland, a former linebacker at Wisconsin, in the USFL and for the 1987 season with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, not only wanted his first son to have a last name to live up to, he gave him a first name to aspire to, with the blessing of his wife.

 

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“When I first started with Riddell (the football helmet and sporting goods producer), there was a rep for us, a coworker, who was based in Montana, and his name was Tuff, T-U-F-F,” Borland said, referring to Tuff Toldness of Missoula. “I always kind of liked it, and I threw it out there as kind of a joke to my wife, and she said, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.’”

They shortened it and behold, Tuf Borland.

Actually, his full name was Jarred Tuf Borland, but when teachers and others insisted on calling him Jarred, Tuf persuaded his parents to drop that name altogether. He went on to become a standout baseball and football player as a youth, turned to linebacker eventually as his primary position, became the starter in the middle of Ohio State's defense midway through last season and returned from a spring Achilles injury to play in every game this season — proving that he has lived up to the name.

“But I’ve never really thought of it in that way,” Tuf said this week. “It’s always just been my name.”

Kids in his neighborhood in Bolingbrook, Illinois, players on other teams, maybe schoolmates had to bring it up every once in a while as a taunt or a challenge. Even today, opponents are likely to throw it back at him.

“You get some heat from it,” Tuf said. “But for the most part, it’s all in good fun.”

Luckily, he was groomed from the start to meet the name’s expectations on the football field.

“My dad introduced me to the game when I was young, and I remember at 5 and 6 years old, sitting there watching games with him,” Tuf said. “I always loved that, that connection, that bond we had through football. It just grew from there. I loved everything about the game, the preparing, the competing, working with teammates.”

But how would the name have gone over if, for example, he had wanted to play the violin?

“That might have been a little bit of a problem,” Kyle Borland said, laughing.

Tuf said that had little chance.

“I’ve grown up around the game with my family, and I’m not just talking about my dad,” he said.

For example, his dad’s father, Glen Borland, was a career coach, including at Wisconsin-Whitewater. His mother’s father, Don Shotliff, was a career high school coach in southern California. His dad’s brother, Brian Borland, is now the defensive coordinator at the University of Buffalo.

And there was his dad, of course, his youth league coach.

“I kind of feel bad about it now, but I probably pushed him harder than anybody else, and he just took it,” Kyle Borland said. “To him that kind of pushing just egged him on and made him want it more. … He responded to it. I’d like to say now if he hadn’t responded to it I would have backed off, but he wanted to be pushed, learn more.”

Tuf remembered the tough love.

“He and I laugh about it now, but I never wanted to ride in a car with him back home after a practice or after a game because he’d immediately go into a critique," Tuf said. “But that’s something I’m now thankful for, the standard he held me to at that age until I was kind of able to understand what he wanted. … Once I grasped that, I was able to apply it and expect it from myself.”

He grew up to be a blue-chip football prospect. Last season as a redshirt freshman, his addition to the lineup helped tighten a leaky unit for Ohio State. Much was expected from him, the only returning linebacker starter, headed into 2018.

Then came the Achilles injury in spring practice. He rejoined the team the day after surgery, but only to watch. For the first time his toughness was tested by his patience to let it heal sufficiently before resuming football practice in late August.

“It puts everything in perspective, for sure, when you go through an injury like that,” Tuf said. “It makes you step back for a minute and think, really, about everything. That’s exactly what I did. One of the things somebody told me was if you can come back from this, you can come back from pretty much anything. That kind of gave me the support and motivation to push through it and get back.”

His resolve evidently impressed teammates. In August, he was elected to be one of the captains though he’d yet to be cleared to play.

“It means a lot to me, knowing how great of athletes we’ve got here, and just great people, it’s truly an honor and I feel blessed by it,” Tuf said.

So what’s in a name? A lot, it seems. But Kyle Borland opted not to push the family luck when Tuf’s younger brother, now a major college defensive end prospect, was born four years later. They named him Trevor.

“I know. I know,” he said, laughing. “I tried to come up with Tank or something like that, but it just didn’t work.”

tmay@dispatch.com

@TIM_MAYsports