Former Steelers offensive lineman and all-pro guard, Alan Faneca returns to Pittsburgh this week, as honorary chairman of the Epilepsy Foundation of Central and Western Pennsylvania’s 25th Family Fun Run and Walk, taking place Saturday.
Faneca was diagnosed with epilepsy as a teenager in Texas. And despite the condition, he played 13 seasons in the NFL, 10 of which with the Steelers, including a victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XL.
Faneca says he was about 13 when he had his first seizure. It was Christmas time, and he initially thought the seizure was a nightmare because it happened at night. But as more incidents arose, Alan was sent through a battery of medical tests.
“They found an abnormal firing spot in my brain and that was the cause of my epilepsy.”
Faneca says once all the questions for the doctor about quality of life were out of the way, the question came up of whether or not he could play football. Faneca says he expected sports to be off the table. But the doctor who diagnosed him said football was fine as long as he monitored his health well and took regular medication. Faneca says he continued to have seizures through puberty until he found the proper dosage of medicine. And by high school he hit a growth spurt that set him on a course for college and a professional football career.
“I grew about 8 inches and put on about 50 to 75 pounds, then all of a sudden it was like okay, football, I get this now. This is my avenue to get to college.”
After college at Louisiana State University, when Faneca decided to go pro, he says doctors at the NFL scouting combine asked him many questions about his epileptic condition but found him suitable to play.
“I think I answered all their questions fairly well and was helping to educate them as well a little bit.”
As a lineman for the Steelers he was aware of potential concussions but there was never a problem.
With regards to the stigma attached to those with epilepsy, he says many have tried to hide their condition for fear of being judged. But from a young age, Faneca says he was taught to make people aware of his condition for safety reasons.
“You kind of have to let people know, because what if you were to have a seizure when mom and dad aren’t around. You’re off with some friends and they don’t know what’s going on with you?”
As a Steeler, Faneca realized that he could help people get over the stigmas associated with epilepsy. When he contacted the Epilepsy Foundation of Central and Western PA to be a spokesman, foundation president, Judy Painter said they couldn't believe he was reaching out to them.
She says Alan Faneca’s influence has done a great deal of good in helping epileptic people be more open about their condition. For example, one man had epilepsy for 40 years and never told anyone because his doctor told him he’d never get a job or health insurance.
“He would keep on falling down, he practically broke every bone in his body but he would never tell anyone he had epilepsy, until Alan Faneca came out and said that he had epilepsy. To him it was a weight of 40 years lifted off of him.”
Painter says because epileptics continue to feel stigmatized, some doctors still don’t want to use the word epilepsy with patients. They instead use softer terms such as seizure disorder.
But with the help of notable spokespeople such as Alan Faneca, she says the stigma might be overcome. Which is why the former Steeler says the main message he wants to get across to those with the condition is, “Epilepsy is what we have, not who we are.”