One of the most exciting football players I ever saw was drafted by the Chicago Cubs, and no, it wasn’t Jeff Samardzija. Before Shark was setting receiving records at Notre Dame, Antwaan Randle El was breaking new ground as a quarterback at Indiana. But while the former opted for the relative safety of the diamond, the latter stuck to the gridiron.
Now, however, the first man in NCAA Division I history to compile 40 career rushing touchdowns and 40 career passing touchdowns has issues just walking down the stairs. That wouldn’t be so difficult to fathom if we were talking about a septuagenarian shuffling into the twilight of his life, but the Super Bowl XL hero in question hasn’t yet compiled 40 career years on Earth.
To watch Randle El play at Indiana was to catch glimpses of lightning dressed in crimson. He was often the only reason to watch Hoosier football, single-handedly shredding defenses as a dual-threat QB. Knowing that the slight speedster would need to change positions in the NFL, coach Cam Cameron split him out at wide receiver. When it became obvious that the team couldn’t win without the ball in Randle El’s hands on every play, however, he was quickly shifted back under center.
Even though opponents knew what was coming, it seemed like nothing and no one could ever catch him. And if being a Heisman candidate and a 14th-round MLB draft pick weren’t testament enough to his transcendent athleticism, Randle El did a little moonlighting on IU’s basketball team. He even logged some meaningful minutes. With a broken hand, no less. No matter how fast or how shifty you are, though, it’s hard to dodge or outrun the effects of a lifetime of violent contact.
I couldn’t have imagined it at the time, but, unbeknownst to all in attendance, Randle El’s revelation was inadvertently foreshadowed just this past weekend.
When I first heard the question from a woman in line to grill the Cubs baseball management team at the Cubs Convention, my initial reaction was one of skepticism. It didn’t take long, though, for me to realize the potential gravity of the query she had just posed. I’m sure it’s still inconceivable for some, what with America’s passion for pigskin, but it’s not hard for many to imagine a fundamental shift taking place. Especially not after you’ve heard Randle El’s story.
“I have to come down sideways sometimes, depending on the day,” Randle El admitted to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a where-are-they-now compilation the paper put together on Steelers’ Super Bowl standouts. “Going up is easier actually than coming down.”
“I ask my wife things over and over again, and she’s like, ‘I just told you that,’ ” the former receiver said. “I’ll ask her three times the night before and get up in the morning and forget. 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.”
How many of us look back wistfully at the salad days of our athletic achievement and wish that we could step back onto the field or the court and do it over? How many of us can only dream of being blessed with the kind of skillset Randle El boasted?
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t,” the pint-sized Pittsburgh paladin professed. “I would play baseball. I got drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round, but I didn’t play baseball because of my parents. They made me go to school. Don’t get me wrong, I love the game of football. But right now, I could still be playing baseball.”
Randle El’s parents had noble intentions, but now the sport that was the vehicle for enriching their son’s mind, not to mention his wallet, has become a source of regret. I don’t mean to impugn mom and dad’s decisions, only to point out the sad irony of their choice.
“The kids are getting bigger and faster, so the concussions, the severe spinal cord injuries, are only going to get worse,” Randle El cautioned. “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.”
And while Trump devotees and mouth-breathers everywhere will certainly take umbrage with Randle El’s comments, decrying the way “Football has become soft like our country has become soft,” it’s hard to argue with the mounting reports of health concerns. Unless, you know, your diet is heavy in rocks and raw meat.
So now we come back around to that seemingly innocuous question from a baseball team’s fanfest. We just heard from one former football player who wishes he’d have taken a different path, but when, if at all, will we see more parents steering their children away from the game? I believe it was Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ Senior VP of Player Development, who said it all comes down to the financial aspects of the sports in question.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty happy with my son scoring an average Major League deal. But as a parent, my concerns go well beyond that. I can’t imagine what Curtis and Jacqueline Randle El are feeling knowing that their son has trouble walking down stairs and remembering things he was just told. Sure, I want my son to be successful. I want my son to be able to provide for himself and his family. More than anything, though, I want my son to be my son.
This news has certainly given me pause. Randle El is, after all, my age. And here he is, a veteran of one of the most storied teams in America’s favorite sport, saying he wished he’d have stuck with baseball. That’s weighty stuff, folks. All that said, I still can’t say definitively that I won’t let my son Ryne play football. Would that I had a crystal ball that allowed me to make the choices today that would put him in the best possible position to succeed in the future.
Of course, even had the Hoosier QB followed a different path, it’s possible that a few errant pitches and hard slides would have produced the same deleterious effects as years of being hammered into the turf by all manner of mountainous men. As a mid-round pick, he may never have made it above Double-A. If Randle El is correct, however, there might not be as much of a choice in the future.
“Right now,” he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if football isn’t around in 20, 25 years.”
That might be a bit hyperbolic, but I just can’t shake the eerie feeling that that woman’s question and the subsequent knowledge of Randle El’s health concerns are more than mere coincidence. Maybe football really is on the decline and we will begin to see a palpable shift of American kids back to our national pastime. Wouldn’t that be something?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go check the lines on the conference championship games and look up some recipes for our Super Bowl party.
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