Antwaan Randle El is only 36 years old, and his regrets should make the NFL take a long look in the mirror.
In 2006, Antwaan Randle El achieved something thousands of kids across the U.S. dream about: throwing a game-clinching touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
The most unbelievable part? He wasn't even the quarterback.
He was a wide receiver.
There's a good chance you remember this play, especially if you're a Pittsburgher (or, more ruefully, if you're a Seattleite,) but if you don't, do yourself a favor and take a look. Pure awesomeness.
It's the kind of feel-good, unlikely success story that, under different circumstances, might have turned the former Pittsburgh Steeler into an ambassador for the game.
Instead, in an astonishing interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Randle El dropped a bombshell: He regrets ever playing football.
"If I could go back, I wouldn’t," Randle El told the paper. "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."
According to the interview, since his retirement in 2010, Randle El has been contending with progressive physical and mental deterioration. He frequently loses his balance walking down stairs. He has trouble remembering things that happened just a few minutes earlier.
Randle El is only 36 years old.
Although Randle El has not received a diagnosis, his symptoms raise fears of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disorder which has shortened the lives of too many former NFL players.
The result of repetitive mild head trauma, CTE often begins by subtly shifting the mood and personality of those who suffer from the disease. Alzheimer's- and Parkinson's-like symptoms often follow, and early death is a common result.
There is evidence that former football players are among the most commonly affected.
A landmark study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University examined the brains of 91 former NFL players and found evidence of CTE in a whopping 96% of them. That same year, The NFL settled a lawsuit with thousands of former players affected by symptoms of the disease for $1 billion.
What can be done about this?
No one really knows for sure. By most important metrics, football is more popular than ever. Given the sport's paramount place in American mass culture and the billions of dollars involved, major reform feels a long way off.
Some change, however, might be achievable in the short term. Making sure players are wearing helmets correctly can help prevent concussions. And education at the high school level, specifically making parents aware of the risks of playing and the slim odds of going pro, could help protect children from injury when their brains are most vulnerable and build a constituency for change from the ground up.
Randle El told the Post-Gazette that he's ultimately pessimistic that the game can be changed in a way that makes it more safe.
"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 told the paper.
While that may or may not be true, with any luck, getting the word out about football's frequently devastating impact on former players will ensure that parents and young people considering a football career at least know the risks before they become reality.