This is a first in a series of posts sponsored by Nestea Bold. For the first post, I'll profile my favorite "bold" Hoosier of all time. Of course, most of IU's legends tend to be basketball players, but certainly during the Knight era, even IU's stars haven't really fit the bold mold. Take Calbert Cheaney, IU's new director of basketball operations. Cheaney remains, nearly 20 years after his career ended, the Big Ten's alltime leading scorer, is one of my favorites, and was the best player on the team from the moment he set foot on campus until the end of his senior year. Still, Cheaney's trademark (other than in that memorable showdown with a Louisville player in the 1993 Tournament) was his cool and collected persona. Many of IU's other basketball greats are the same. Instead, for this post, I will turn to football and profile one of the Hoosiers' greatest players, Antwaan Randle El.
Randle El played quarterback at Indiana from 1998-2001. He enrolled as a partial qualifier in 1997, Cam Cameron's first season at IU. Under the partial qualifier scheme, a player whose academic credentials were not quite good enough to fully qualify was allowed to enroll and practice with the team and then became eligible to play during his second year on campus. If the player graduated in four years, he was given a fourth year of eligibility (a fifth year on campus). Because he was already on campus, Randle El became a legend of the rumor mill, both in football and basketball. (He played for the hoops team in 1998-99 but after a broken wrist at the beginning of basketball practice the next season, he committed exclusively to football). Still, either out of indecision or some combination of strategy and showmanship, Cameron did not name a starter before the 1998 season. Until Randle El trotted onto the field with the offense during the 1998 opener against Western Michigan, it was unclear whether he or Jay Rodgers, the 1996 and 1997 starter, would get the nod. Three hours later, it was apparent that Randle El wasn't going to be sharing the starting QB job. In his debut against Western Michigan, Randle El completed 22 of 29 passes for 385 yards and threw three touchdowns. He ran for 82 yards and three more touchdowns. He was an instant sensation. His statistical accomplishments are well-documented at his Wikipedia page: he was the first player in NCAA history to have 40 rushing TDs and 40 passing TDs in his career. He is the only player in NCAA history to account for 2500 total yards in four seasons. He finished 6th in Heisman Trophy voting for a team that finished 5-6.
Unfortunately, the final score of his first game should have been a red flag. Thanks to ARE's six touchdowns plus a field goal, IU scored 45 points, but allowed 30. I can't find the numbers for 1998, but in 1999, IU ranked #34 in total offense but #104 in total offense. In 2000, IU ranked #13 in total offense and #112 (of 114 teams!) in total defense. In 2001, IU ranked #19 in total offense and #73 in total defense. Despite one of the most amazing offensive careers in the history of college football, Randle El never played on a winning team or in a bowl game. His best chances were in his freshman year and his senior year. In 1998, IU finished 4-7, with some excrutiating losses, most notably a loss at Kentucky despite picking off Tim Couch four times, and an overtime loss to Michigan State in East Lansing. In 2001, IU finished 5-6, winning on the road against both Wisconsin and Michigan State (scoring 63 on the Badgers). Unfortunately, Randle El started the season at wide receiver in a disastrous debut at NC State. Randle El returned to QB the next week, but IU lost a home game 28-26 to Utah. In a play that was perfectly emblematic of the Cameron era, IU appeared to tie that game on a two point conversion, but it was voided because of an illegal formation penalty.
For all of his gaudy statistics, Randle El's incredible performance cannot truly be captured by statistics. One announcer used to call him a "waterbug," and that was a very good description. Every offensive play was exciting. What looked like a run might be a pass downfield. What looked like a pass might turn into a spectacular run, either by scramble or by design. He is not a large man (his NFL specs are 5'10", 190) and often placed himself in harm's way for a few extra yards. He produced electrifying offensive performances, and had IU managed to field even moderately below-average defenses during his time, he would have won a bunch of games. Instead, Cameron, an offensive coordinator posing as a head coach, fielded some of the worst defenses in the country.
After he left IU, Randle El's quarterbacking days were over. He has spent his NFL career as a wide receiver and kick returner for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins. Fortunately, Randle El has been a part of the sort of team success that eluded him as a college player. Unsurprisingly, the Steelers and Redskins have taken advantage of his passing ability. For his career, Randle El is 22-27 for 323 yards, 6 touchdowns, and no interceptions. The most famous pass of his career, of course, came in Super Bowl XL, when Randle El helped the Steelers overcome an execrable performance by Ben Roethlisberger by throwing a decisive, 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward. Randle El has the highest passer rating of any NFL player with more than 20 attempts, and is the only non-quarterback to have thrown a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
Here's to Antwaan Randle El, the boldest Hoosier in recent memory.