From day one of the 1998 IU football season, then-Coach Cam Cameron knew he had a special player in the unlikeliest of targets.
Forget any typical 6-foot-plus, 200-pound quarterback. He had found the leader of his program in his second year on the job: a 5-foot-10-inch, 177-pound redshirt freshman that had to sit out for a year because he was academically ineligible.
The undersized player became the most successful quarterback in Hoosier football history.
After graduating 11 years ago with a degree in sports communication and pursuing a nine-year NFL career, Antwaan Randle El will be inducted into the IU Athletics Hall of Fame Friday and recognized at halftime of IU’s football game Saturday.
Randle El was not a typical IU football recruit coming out of high school in 1997, at least not when schools were pursuing the same athlete in three different sports.
A basketball and baseball star from Riverdale, Ill., then-IU basketball Coach Bob Knight was interested in recruiting Randle El.
What followed was Cameron, then in his first year as football coach, and Knight teaming up to lure Randle El to Bloomington.
The player chose to attend IU instead of taking a chance to play baseball in the Chicago Cubs organization after being drafted by them in the 14th round of the 1997 MLB Draft.
The Hoosiers had landed perhaps its most versatile recruit in school history.
“I’m not sure if Antwaan would have come to Indiana if it hadn’t been for Coach Knight’s help in the recruiting process,” Cameron said. “I don’t know if there has ever been a more versatile athlete in college football history.”
When Randle El first came to Bloomington as a student that fall, there was no guarantee he would ever find the field or court at IU.
A partial academic qualifier out of high school, he was forced to sit out the 1997-98 IU football and basketball seasons until his grade point average increased.
When he was cleared to play for the 1998-99 academic year, Randle El began to focus intensely on his football career.
At that point, according to Cameron, there was no question on who the team’s starting quarterback would be.
“From day one we knew Antwaan was something special,” Cameron said. “Every drill he was in his entire career, offseason or in-season, he was going to try to win the drill and bring his teammates up to another level.”
Despite his size and prior academic issues, Cameron said he saw incredible talent in what Randle El could do on the football field. Before the 1998 preseason started, he named the redshirt freshman starting quarterback of the IU Hoosiers.
“He said no matter whatever goes on, you’re going to have the chance to be the starting quarterback,” Randle El said. “He was an NFL guy. He could have easily said we’re going to go with a taller guy, but he gave me that opportunity, and I’m very grateful he did.”
On Sept. 12, 1998, as the Hoosiers led the Western Michigan Broncos in their season opener 31-14 at halftime in their season opener, fervor was spreading about a freshman quarterback phenomenon IU was playing.
IU athletics radio announcer Don Fischer pleaded with fans not at the game to make it out to Memorial Stadium in time for the second half to watch Randle El perform.
“We had never seen anything like it,” Cameron said. “That game was indicative of what his entire career was like.”
After his first collegiate game of his career was finished, Randle El had set the school record of total offensive yards in a single game.
His 467 yards of combined rushing and passing along with six total touchdowns led the Hoosiers to a 45-30 victory that day against the Broncos.
“It feels like a blur,” Randle El said. “It was just awesome. I knew we couldn’t be stopped on offense. I felt so empowered, like I could do anything.”
That game in turn set the tone for the remainder of his freshman season at IU.
At the end of the 1998 football season, Randle El had become a Big Ten star.
He was IU’s record-holder for most rushing yards in a single season by a quarterback, 873, and had four games in which he ran for more than 100 yards.
He also passed for 1,745 yards that season and was a two-time Big Ten Player of the Week.
On Dec. 1, 1998, to top off his memorable freshman campaign, Randle El was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
“I felt like I needed to go out and prove how good I was because of my size,” Randle El said. “Being freshman of the year was being like, okay, I can prove it, but the challenge was, now I needed to go out and continue to try to do that every year.”
During the next three years, Randle El did just that.
He was the first player in NCAA history to have 40 passing touchdowns and 40 rushing touchdowns in a career. He was the first to compile 2,500 total yards of offense in each of his four years at college.
Randle El would be named Big Ten MVP after his senior year and finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting a year after placing 13th for the award.
In addition, Randle El did not just play quarterback at IU. He also played the role of wide receiver, punt returner and even a punt blocker with the direction of his head coach.
“My guess is that if we had won a couple of more games, he would have won a Heisman Trophy,” Cameron said. “He was such a critical part to our team’s success.”
After his senior season, Randle El had made his mark on the IU football program. He left Bloomington as the all-time school passing yards leader, total offensive yards leader and rushing yards by a quarterback leader.
To this day, all three of those records remain standing.
“I had a chance, and that was a big deal,” Randle El said. “I never do an interview without saying this, but God gave me the attributes to be where I am today: to be able to throw, to be able to run and to be able to catch.”
Rarely do student athletes have the chance to do what Randle El did as a Hoosier.
After his freshman football season, he played basketball for one year with Knight. He participated in 11 games and scored 16 points.
He also played baseball in the 2000 season with then-IU Coach Bob Morgan.
Upon leaving Bloomington in 2002, Randle El went to the NFL and had a career as a wide receiver and special teams returner for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins.
He won Super Bowl XL with the Steelers, throwing a 43-yard touchdown pass on a trick play that day.
Last summer, he retired from the league to focus on his charity, the EL Foundation, and a career in sports broadcasting.
He also said he wants to return to Bloomington more often now that he is no longer playing football.
A perfect chance for that will come this weekend for the IU Athletics Hall of Fame induction.
Fourteen years after Randle El first stepped foot in Memorial Stadium as the Hoosiers’ starting quarterback, he will stand on the footsteps of IU immortality as one of the greatest football players to ever suit up in a Hoosier uniform.
At the age of 33, Randle El will have yet another accolade to add to his name: Indiana Hall of Famer.
“Just to be recognized in the Hall of Fame shows the appreciation they have for what I worked hard on my entire time in Bloomington,” he said. “I really have to be thankful for that.”