MADISON, Wis. -- The most respected player in the Big Ten couldn't impress a third grader last week.
While working with students at Stoner Prairie Elementary School, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland asked the kids if they would like to see a magic trick. He proceeded to wrap a hair band around his index and middle fingers before making a fist. When he reopened his palm, the band had moved to his ring and pinkie fingers.
Borland asked the boy seated to his right if he'd like to see it again or learn how to do it. The boy shook his head no and looked away.
"Guess I need to learn some new tricks," Borland said.
This, you should know, was an uncommon occurrence. Borland usually dazzles most people who get to know him, especially the more they watch him.
The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year and two-time first-team all-conference selection is having his best season yet, making him a strong bet for conference defensive player of the year and All-America honors. His next forced fumble will tie him for the FBS record. Tales of his athletic exploits have become legendary around Madison, while his teammates, coaches and even opponents speak about him in reverential tones.
ESPN.com spent several hours behind the scenes with Borland last week as he prepared for Wisconsin's homecoming game against Northwestern. There was no magic involved, but that didn't make him any less impressive.
Being a fifth-year senior has its benefits. For Borland -- a history major who will graduate in December -- one of those means no classes on Thursdays.
He uses that free time to volunteer at Stoner Prairie in nearby Fitchburg every Thursday morning, spending about an hour helping out with first, second and third graders in Jodi Moll's classroom. Last week, he began by guiding students as they wrote sentences about some rocks and minerals on their table.
"What's the first thing you think of when you see that rock?" he coaxed one boy. A girl asked him how to spell rock, and he replied, "Sound it out … good." Another girl later got his autograph on a sheet of loose-leaf paper, then requested two more for her brother and her friend.
"The kids really are drawn to him," Moll said. "I asked them last week what number he wears, and they all said '44' right away. Now, they all look for him on TV."
Borland has been coming to Moll's classroom once a week since the start of the season. He also does other service projects on Tuesdays and often visits local hospitals on Friday. Kayla Gross, the community relations coordinator for Wisconsin athletics, said Borland has performed more than 90 hours of community service work since May, and he's the first player she calls whenever she needs volunteers.
"The team looks up to him so much, and he does such a fantastic job of gathering those guys together for events," Gross said. "He makes my job a lot easier."
After leaving the school, Borland headed to the Badgers' new and improved weight room facility for some lifting and recovery work.
At 5-foot-11, Borland is often described as undersized for a middle linebacker. But he packs 246 pounds on that frame without wasted space. What stands out about his hourlong workout was not how much he lifted but rather how he went about things. He was the only player who ran from station to station, sweating himself through a long-sleeved red shirt.
Wisconsin strength coach Evan Simon calls Borland "The Thing," after the "Fantastic Four" character whose skin is made out of rocks. Simon joined the Badgers in January as part of first-year head coach Gary Andersen's staff, and like most others he marvels at Borland's work ethic and desire.
"He is one of a small percentage of athletes who are both genetically gifted and give 100 percent effort," Simon said. "That's a rare breed. He will be the standard we use for every football player that comes in here for years to come. That will be his legacy." Later, while munching on a buffalo chicken wrap on the lakeside patio at Wisconsin's Memorial Union, Borland explained his drive to succeed as "probably innate." He also didn't have much of a choice to develop that if he ever wanted to win any pickup games as a kid.
He grew up in Kettering, Ohio, with three older brothers, plus several kids on his street who wound up as college athletes. Whether it was backyard football with his brothers or another neighborhood game, Borland always played at a disadvantage.
"I was six years younger than most of the people on the field," he said. "So I had to be tough."
The truth is, though, that Borland could hold his own with just about anyone athletically. Borland's father wouldn't let any of his boys sign up for football until high school, so Borland competed in soccer, baseball, basketball, swimming, diving and all kinds of activities that helped him build a variety of skills. Those who peg him as just a high-effort player with limited athleticism because he's not tall or because he plays for Wisconsin aren't paying attention.
"I hear that all the time, and I just think it's probably lazy analyzing," Borland said. "I'm more athletic than people think."
In fact, he might be the best all-around athlete on the Badgers. While Borland goofed around in a locker room Frisbee game last week, teammate Tyler Dippel wailed, "Aw, Chris. You think you're good at everything!" That's not far off.
Borland famously kicked three extra points against Hawaii as a freshman, a year in which he also returned kicks. He's been known to drill 35-yard field goals in practice. In the Arizona State game last month, he completed a pass for a first down on a fake punt.
After filming a segment at Camp Randall Stadium for the Northwestern broadcast on Friday, Borland wanted to see if he could throw a pass that hit the crossbar from the 20-yard line. On his first attempt, he dinged the very center of that bar. He'll also occasionally throw 40-yard passes with his off-hand and flip a loose football up to himself using only his feet.
"There are times when he'll make a big play at practice, and then as he's jogging back, he'll do a backflip," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. "That's Chris."
Aranda calls Borland "the perfect fit" for the 3-4 alignment he brought to Wisconsin this season. The scheme allows Borland more freedom to roam and make plays, and he has seemingly been around the ball on just about every snap this year.
He was especially destructive in the 31-24 loss at Ohio State, registering a career-high 16 tackles. That included both a fourth-and-1 and a goal-line stop of Buckeyes' running back Carlos Hyde, a 235-pounder who isn't used to being stood up by just one defender.
"That was awesome," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who knows a little bit about linebacker play. "That's textbook. Sink and strike." What makes Borland one of the nation's top linebackers is his combination of strength, skill, preparation and experience. Few Big Ten players can match him on that last trait.
Borland has appeared in 50 career games already because of a shoulder injury that limited him to two appearances in 2010. He recently bumped into a female graduate who had shared a class with him when he was a freshman. She first asked him what he was doing on campus before pausing and saying, "Wait … you still play here?"
Borland jokes about being an old man, but his experience helps him spot opponents' tendencies and figure out how to use them to his advantage. He does that so well that Aranda says he often gets tips from Borland. Like all Badgers players, he downloads game film and cut-ups on his iPad, which also includes Aranda's notes and diagrams on defensive plays. Borland said he watches about an hour's worth of film on his own time every day, and he takes copious notes on a yellow legal pad.
As he watched Northwestern film on Thursday afternoon, he guided a visitor through what he saw. He pointed out that the Wildcats had run the ball 71 percent of the time after gaining four or more yards on first down this season, and the depth of their running backs on shotgun snaps usually gave away whether they would run or a pass.
"If we get that, and that alignment, that's something you can really jump on," he said.
As Northwestern lined up for another play on the iPad video, Borland correctly predicted, "that right guard is going to pull." How did he know?
"Look at his head compared to everybody else on the line," he said. "It's like a full six inches back. His left shoulder is up, and his weight's on his heels."
Borland called the Wildcats' right guard, Ian Park, "the fish," or what Wisconsin terms the weak link in the other team's offensive line. The Badgers believed they could get more aggressive with their blitzes last Saturday.
"Northwestern doesn't handle line movement very well," he said, "so we'll be stunting a lot."
Borland later sat in the front row for Aranda's hourlong meeting with the inside linebackers. With a bye week adding extra preparation time, Aranda was very confident in his defensive game plan, especially against the Wildcats' running game. In the meeting, Aranda focused on two things that concerned him: quarterback Kain Colter's ability to make big plays while scrambling outside the tackle box, and Northwestern's use of slot receivers to create mismatches. Borland would have to cover some of those inside routes.
"No team looks for the [slot receiver] down the seam as much as these people do," Aranda says. "You have to open your hips and run with that guy."
Borland is a soft-spoken guy who doesn't say much more than is required. That, along with his widespread respect among the team, gives his words more weight.
"When he chooses to address the group," Simon said, "you can hear a pin drop."
In the locker room before kickoff against Northwestern, Borland gathered the defense into a circle surrounding him and former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. For about 30 seconds, he implored his teammates to let it loose on defense and give their best performance of the season.
"He's such a huge emotional leader," linebacker Conor O'Neill said. "To be able to get that boost right before game is big, and it's always special to get it from Chris because you know he means it when he speaks."
"I didn't have to say much after that," Andersen said. "They came out ready to roll."
Wisconsin's defense smothered the Wildcats in a 35-6 win, holding Northwestern to its lowest point total in more than seven years. Typically, Borland was in the middle of everything.
In the opening minutes, Northwestern had a third-and-goal at the Badgers' 4-yard-line, and Colter scrambled outside to his left. Borland chased him down for a sack and a 6-yard loss. Borland rolled his ankle toward the end of the first quarter and noticeably limped for a few minutes, but he stayed in the game. He later broke up a pass to Colter, who had lined up in the slot for one of those routes that concerned Aranda. Borland finished with a team-high 10 tackles, and, as he had predicted, Northwestern had trouble with Wisconsin's pressure as seven different Badgers recorded one sack.
"Chris, he never ceases to amaze me," Andersen said after the game.
This story began by calling Borland the Big Ten's most respected player. That's not hyperbole.
At Big Ten media days this summer, Borland was sitting at a table conducting a chat for ESPN.com. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer walked by and stopped. He shook Borland's hand, asked him where he went to high school and told him how much he enjoyed watching him play.
Northwestern's Fitzgerald called Borland "as relentless of a football player as I've seen maybe in a couple of years."
"I have a little twinkle in my eye for linebackers," Fitzgerald said. "That's the way you're supposed to play the position."
Aranda calls Borland the model for all young Wisconsin players and wishes he had more time to coach him.
"I'll call him up to go watch tape and he's at the hospital visiting patients," Aranda said. "He makes you want to be a better person. I feel deficient as a human being at times."
A Baltimore Ravens scout visited Wisconsin on Thursday morning and asked Aranda which players he should watch. Aranda mentioned Borland first before going through his other guys. The scout didn't say much, just nodded and wrote down the names.
As the scout was leaving Thursday night, he stopped by Aranda's office and told him, "I had so much fun watching Chris. That kid's a first-rounder."
The more you see him, the more impressed you become. That's the magic of Chris Borland.