By J. Brady McCollough
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Block News Alliance
Ten years after he threw one of the most celebrated passes in Steelers history, Antwaan Randle El has trouble walking down stairs.
“I have to come down sideways sometimes, depending on the day,” Randle El, 36, said. “Going up is easier actually than coming down.”
Randle El was an electric athlete, versatile enough to run a route on one play and throw a beautiful spiral on the next, as he did in Super Bowl XL when he found Hines Ward for a 43-yard touchdown on a wide-receiver reverse pass. That his body has begun to betray him before his 40th birthday is hard to fathom. The crazy thing is that Randle El can feel his mind slipping, too.
“I ask my wife things over and over again, and she’s like, ‘I just told you that,’ ” Randle El said. “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 didn’t hesitate when asked if he regrets playing football.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t,” he said. “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 early retirement from football in 2010 allowed him to more quickly move into a second stanza in which he could use his immense faith to help others. Three years ago, he helped found a Christian high school in Ashburn, Va., called Virginia Academy. He has served as the school’s athletic director, and, through his El Foundation, five underprivileged students are now on scholarship there.
When the school started, Randle El wanted it to have a football program. They funded it for two years before he decided it was too expensive and dropped the sport. It was not a popular decision, as Virginia Academy lost about 15 students because of it.
Knowing what he does about the game, Randle El can easily justify dropping the sport at the high-school level because of the liability alone.
“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.”
Randle El knows how much power the game of football still has over American society. He knows every year the NFL just piles up more and more money. But he also knows the winds are changing.
What he’s about to say … he knows it sounds off the wall.
“Right now,” he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if football isn’t around in 20, 25 years.”
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