Early in training camp, Alan Faneca took an important postpractice stroll. The Epilepsy Foundation of Long Island had a group of youngsters out to watch a morning workout and Faneca stopped by and said hello.
"You just want for them to have a good time out here," he said. "It's a chance for them to meet professional football players and it's a fun time for them. I just wanted to say hey and let them know that you can be what you want."
The message was more than just talk because Faneca, who's played in seven consecutive Pro Bowls, has epilepsy. The Jets' new left guard, who signed in the spring after 10 highly successful seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was diagnosed with the condition when he was 15.
Epilepsy is a condition that produces seizures. According to The Epilepsy Foundation's Website, a person is considered to have epilepsy when he or she has two or more seizures.
"There are different degrees of epilepsy. My seizures are labeled petit mal," Faneca said. "I haven't had one in a long time, but I generally have the urge to go somewhere and I've just got to go. I'm in rush, I got to go. I don't know where I have to go, but I have to go. I make fun of myself to make things easier for others especially when I'm talking to kids."
Petit mal seizures, which last for a few seconds, come without warning and without any aftereffects. Faneca recalled one particular instance when he felt the need to "go."
"The one time I walked to high school and thank goodness I didn't wear pajamas. I had some sleep shorts and an old ratty shirt," Faneca said. "I lived about two miles from high school and I walked there one morning really early and a buddy looked at me in the hallway and was kind of like, 'What are you doing?'
"I was like, 'I'm going home.' I clicked right out of it, went home and changed and then came right back to school."
But Faneca, prescribed with antiepileptic medication after his diagnosis, has achieved tremendous athletic achievement throughout his life. He was named the Houston Touchdown Club's Player of the Year as an offensive lineman after his senior season at Lamar Consolidated High School, earned All-America status at LSU, and was selected by the Steelers in the first round (26th overall) of the 1998 NFL Draft.
"I take six pills a day —two pills three times a day, every day," he said. "As long as I'm on my medication, I'm fine. If I forget to take it for several doses, I would have a seizure."
The Jets were lauded for landing the durable Faneca, viewed as one of the NFL's top offensive linemen. The 6'5", 307-pounder has been a rock throughout his career, starting 153 times in his 158 games. He enters the 2008 campaign with 96 consecutive starts.
"When you tell someone you have epilepsy, the first thing they think of is what they see in movies," he said. "They see the guy hitting the ground, having the grand mal seizure, and they just don't know there are so many different forms of epilepsy. There are different forms and people are able to play professional football."
In fact, more than 3 million people in the U.S. have some form of epilepsy and about 200,000 new cases of seizure disorders and epilepsy are diagnosed annually.
Faneca knows he has a platform where he can reach others and maybe even help give some people hope and inspiration. He is not the only person in his household affected by the condition.
"I plan to help and get the word out. My daughter [Anabelle Kathryn] has epilepsy as well. She's 3 years old," he said. "We have completely separate issues, so it's a little ironic but we both have epilepsy and I'm definitely looking to improve her world as well."
While in Pittsburgh, Faneca was active with the Epilepsy Foundation. A group of Steelers fans involved with the foundation in western and central Pennsylvania called themselves "Faneca's Fanatics."
"We brought a bunch of people out to training camp. I went to the events and I went to the walks," he said. "I just tried to be a voice in the epilepsy community, I did stuff during Epilepsy Awareness Month. Just lots of things to get the message out, to make people aware of me in my situation, and by doing that, alleviating the stereotype of people with epilepsy."
Anyone in the football world will tell you that you can't be successful without being good up front. The epilepsy community has found a good one in Faneca, who's firmly planted himself in the trenches and is willing to provide the support others desperately need.
"I think the best thing for kids with epilepsy to do is to just be open about it, especially because if something does happen, your friends need to know. They need to be able to tell the paramedics," he said.
"Along with that, by being open, you don't have to feel like you're hiding something. You don't have to feel inferior to your friends if that's how you're feeling. You can be yourself, be open about it and move on and do what you're able to do."