The play was perfectly designed. Ben Roethslisberger took the snap and tossed the ball to his left to running back Willie Parker. From his wide receiver position out wide to the left, Antwaan Randle El came streaking around to his right, behind Parker, who tossed the ball back to him. Randle El ran with the ball for a moment, then gathered himself and launched a 50-yard pass to Hines Ward, who caught the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.
It was the most memorable play in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ victory in Super Bowl XL, one of those gadget plays that make football so thrilling to watch. But the man at the center of it regrets ever participating in it.
Six years after his retirement from the NFL, Randle El, just 36, says he’s been experiencing memory loss and an inability to walk down stairs without pain. Randle El told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he has to ask his wife the same question three or four times because he can’t remember the answer. It’s gotten so bad that he now regrets ever strapping on a helmet.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t [play football],” Randle El 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.”
It has to be terrifying to feel your memory slipping so severely in your mid-30s, Randle El’s case is another example of the physical and mental toll the game of football can have on its players. Though the NFL has taken steps to limit injuries, especially to the head, Randle El doesn’t think things are getting any better.
“The kids are getting bigger and faster, so the concussions [and] the severe spinal cord injuries are only going to get worse,” Randle El said. “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.”
Those are damning words from a successful NFL player, and Randle El goes to on to say that he wouldn’t be surprised if the NFL didn’t exist in 20 years. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that—total extinction—but stories like Randle El’s are becoming far too common to dismiss.