BEAVERTON, Ore. – The beard began, as beards often do, as whiskers. A patch of reddish stubble that began to fill the face of the formerly clean-shaven Nat Borchers.
In 2013, the Portland Timbers defender, then patrolling central defense for Real Salt Lake, decided to grow out his facial hair—what athletes call a “playoff beard”—during the MLS Cup Playoffs.
That wasn't the first time that Borchers had grown a beard. The imposing center back says that he first grew one shortly after college, during his second season in MLS. But as impossible as it is to believe now, that beard was short-lived. For the vast majority of his professional career, Borchers has kept his hair neatly cropped and groomed.
But even after Real Salt Lake lost in penalties in the MLS Cup final to Sporting Kansas City, Borchers kept the new bearded look for one very important reason.
“My wife liked it, first and foremost,” Borchers explained. “Then it started getting a little bit longer, past the shorter, neat look and it kind of grew into something else—where it is now—and I'm not too sure how she feels about it.”
Against all expectations, the beard has since grown into Borchers's most expressive feature. “Fear the Beard” became the slogan that defined Borchers's rugged look and perfectly captured the defender's impassioned on-field demeanor. Even the German Bundesliga has taken notice, comparing it to SV Darmstadt 98 forward Marco Sailer.
The beard itself has taken on a life all of its own.
“Right now it's kind of gnarly and out there,” the defender said.
It's grown so full, in fact, that fans have compared Borchers's mountain man appearance to that of Tormund Giantsbane, a character from the hit TV series Game of Thrones. Borchers, who actively engages with his fans on social media, has even embraced the comparison, dressing up as the Free Folk warrior for Halloween this year.
“I had no idea about the comparisons but my Twitter feed started lighting up with the Game of Thrones references and I started watching it,” Borchers said, adding, “I was like, wow, he's got a very nice red beard and I think there are some similarities.”
Yet even if the beard has become more unmanageable and even if his wife has soured on the look, Borchers says that the beard will at least live on for a few more weeks. Playoff beards, it seems, are back.
“Listen, we're in the playoffs right now, everybody's got to put some hair on their face and do something fun because we're making a run,” he said. After defeating Sporting and Vancouver Whitecaps FC earlier in the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs, the Timbers next host FC Dallas this Sunday in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship (4:30pm PT, FOX Sports 1).
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Asked whether he will shave the beard if the Timbers win MLS Cup, Borchers instead expressed his conviction that after December 6, the beard will be gone.
“When we win MLS Cup, I will be shaving this thing off,” he said.
And it won't be a solo affair either. Borchers explained that he'll be eliciting the steady hands of his Timbers teammates to shave off the now legendary facial hair.
“I'll probably have the guys help me do it,” he said.
As Borchers speaks, he occasionally reaches out a hand to stroke his whiskers. The beard has almost become an extension of his personality both on and off the pitch. So will he miss it?
“I'll have to grow it back again just for the next run,” he said. “The reason I kept it, I kind of wanted to have a goal, to get back to MLS Cup and hopefully win something; it comes off and the journey starts again.”