Faneca hasn't allowed epilepsy to get in the way of his dreams

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Alan Faneca remembers waking up in the middle of the night, scared and unsure of what was wrong with his body.

He was 15 and in his freshman year of high school, and his first epileptic seizure had just jolted him out of his sleep on Christmas Eve.

"It just felt like a nightmare," the New York Jets' left guard recalled Wednesday. "I was upset and crying and it just really felt like a really bad nightmare. I didn't know what was going on."

Faneca's parents rushed to their son, also unaware of what was happening.

"I was just like, 'Oh, it's just a nightmare. It's just a bad dream,"' Faneca said. "Maybe a day or two later, I had another one, so then we realized it was definitely time to seek medical attention."

Faneca underwent several tests, which revealed that he was among the 3 million Americans who have epilepsy. It is a neurological condition that occasionally produces brief disturbances in the normal electrical functions of the brain, according to the National Epilepsy Foundation.

"I take six pills a day, even now," he said. "As long as I'm on my medication, I'm fine."

Faneca, who hasn't had a seizure in several years, refused to let the condition prevent him from becoming a star offensive lineman at LSU, and then a Super Bowl-winning, seven-time Pro Bowl guard with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"It's a little bit of a shocker when you're in high school and all of the sudden, you find out, epilepsy, and boom," the 31-year-old Faneca said. "All of the sudden, you get to quality-of-life questions and then you get to sports. I was able and capable of doing anything I wanted before I found out, so it was just a matter of taking my medication."

Faneca talks openly about the condition, and has helped bring awareness to it by appearing at charity events and benefit walks.

"The mere fact that Alan is able and willing to speak up about his epilepsy makes a huge difference to those of us who have epilepsy," former National Epilepsy Foundation chairman Tony Coelho said.

Coelho, who also lives with epilepsy, is a former congressman from California and the primary author and sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He has known Faneca for five years and they have worked together in trying to eliminate the stigma attached to epilepsy.

"There are so many people whose families don't want to acknowledge their epilepsy," Coelho said. "Alan has become a wonderful role model and spokesperson for our cause. He's been very open about it and never hid it. As a result of his openness, he has impacted other players."

One of those is Baltimore Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle, who missed time last season while dealing with epileptic seizures. He revealed his condition in November, in part because he was comforted by knowing Faneca also has it.

"He's had epilepsy since he was 15 and he's probably the best guard in football," Rolle said at the time. "I feel very good knowing what I know now."

Faneca and Rolle aren't the only big-name athletes who have dealt with epilepsy, a group that includes Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, Hall of Fame second baseman Tony Lazzeri, former Olympic gold medalist Florence Griffith-Joyner and former baseball All-Star and manager Buddy Bell.

"I had a really good support group," Faneca said. "I had my family and I had great doctors and everybody was upbeat and positive and very much so that I was going to get back to my normal way of life."

He did briefly fear that football wouldn't be an option until his doctor reassured him.

"My doctor, he said it so fast that everything was fine that I had to say, 'Hold on a second. Do you know what football is?"' he said. "He knew what football was, but he just said it so fast. It was like, 'All right.' If the doc is saying it in a matter of a split-second, then there's nothing to worry about."

There certainly wasn't, based on the success he's had on the field.

In his first season with the Jets after 10 with the Steelers, Faneca is already largely viewed as the key member of a revamped offensive line. The Jets signed him to a five-year, $40 million contract, with $21 million in guarantees, making Faneca the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history.

"I'm going to come in here and be me," he said. "I'm going to come out here and play hard and, at the same time, even though I haven't been here for the last 10 years, I have to earn the respect from the guys in the locker room and become a leader."

For many Americans living with epilepsy, Faneca is already much more.

"To have someone who's an All-Pro speak about it so openly, young people look up to him and it makes a difference in their lives," Coelho said. "They say, 'If Alan has epilepsy and he's been able to do what he's done, then there's no reason I can't do things, too."'

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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