To a generation of Indiana football fans, Antwaan Randle-El was Indiana football.
Randle El was the godfather of Indiana's electric, offensive-first brand of football that permeates to Kevin Wilson's years today. The Chicago native set Big Ten records for all-purpose yards at quarterback, was the Big Ten player of the year in 2001, was probably screwed out of being a Heisman finalist, and made Indiana's otherwise-forgettable football program at the turn of the century a draw for networks all despite never winning more than five games in a season. From there, Randle-El went on to become a second round draft pick at wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, played eight years in the NFL, made millions, and threw a touchdown pass in a Super Bowl win.
Now, he wishes it all had never happened.
Now experiencing physical and mental issues after his football career, Randle-El tells the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that he wishes he hadn't ever played the game and would have instead pursued baseball professionally. Randle-El was a three-sport athlete at Indiana, playing basketball for Bob Knight and baseball for Bob Morgan opposite football season. He had been drafted by the Chicago Cubs out of high school, but his parents urged him to pursue a collegiate education.
Randle El, who played in Washington from 2006 to 2009 between two stints in Pittsburgh, said he regularly experiences trouble walking down stairs — "I have to come down sideways sometimes, depending on the day" — and has serious memory lapses.
"I ask my wife things over and over again, and she’s like, ‘I just told you that,’ " said Randle El. "I’ll ask her three times the night before and get up in the morning and forget. Stuff like that. I try to chalk it up as I’m busy, I’m doing a lot, but I have to be on my knees praying about it, asking God to allow me to not have these issues and live a long life. I want to see my kids raised up. I want to see my grandkids."
Randle El's words are jarring for anyone, but should hit especially home to a generation of Indiana fans (like me!) that romanticize the former quarterbacking dynamo's exploits in Bloomington. It shouldn't surprise anyone to see the forward-thinking & family-minded former star speaking out, however. Antwaan's long talked about his history of concussions in the past, and was one of four NFL players to sue the league in 2013 for downplaying the impact of concussions to players. That suit was settled just in 2015 -- and the Washington Post has more on that here.
And for anyone that would like to lament the WAR ON FOOTBALL, claiming that football injuries are the product of bad coaching and protections by individuals, well, Randle El has thoughts for them.
"The kids are getting bigger and faster, so the concussions, the severe spinal cord injuries, are only going to get worse," he said. "It’s a tough pill to swallow because I love the game of football. But I tell parents, ‘You can have the right helmet, the perfect pads on, and still end up with a paraplegic kid.’
"There’s no correcting it. There’s no helmet that’s going to correct it. There’s no teaching that’s going to correct it. It just comes down to it’s a physically violent game. Football players are in a car wreck every week."
"Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if football isn’t around in 20, 25 years."
As a young fan, I'll never forget Randle El's time at Indiana. Let's hope he can always remember them, too.