Image of Justin Fields
Justin Fields is tipped to be a first-round NFL draft pick. He recently announced he has epilepsy. TigerNet.com photo

Hardesty: I don’t know what it’s like to be a first-round draft pick, but I know what it’s like to have epilepsy

Justin Fields spent his two years at Ohio State moving the ball downfield as well as — or better — than any quarterback ever to wear the Scarlet and Gray.

But no drive to the end zone for the Buckeyes will have meant nearly as much as will his march to erase the stigma of the disease that Fields recently revealed he has:

Epilepsy.

Fields, a projected first-round pick in this week’s draft that begins Thursday, informed NFL teams during the pre-draft process that he has had epilepsy since childhood. The two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy finalist obviously never let the neurological disease stop him before, and there’s no reason to believe it will be a factor for Fields at the professional level, either.

He never missed a game at Ohio State because of epilepsy, and he has said that his condition is controlled through proper medication, as is the case with a large number of epileptics. And because Fields has childhood epilepsy, there is a good chance he will eventually grow out of it.

Still, Fields’ journey in the NFL will be watched carefully because there is a whole lot of misunderstanding and, quite frankly, ignorance out there when it comes to epilepsy and how those who have it are perceived.

I know, because I am an epileptic.

I was diagnosed with the disease when I was 18 years old, during my first semester of college at the University of Akron. I didn’t know I had epilepsy until I found myself on the floor of a classroom during an Algebra exam, my glasses shattered and paramedics hovering over me asking questions I couldn’t answer like “What’s your name?” and “Where are you?”

I had just experienced a grand mal seizure, my first. I had no idea it was about to happen. One second I was sitting at my desk sweating out an exam in one of my worst subjects, and the next thing I knew I was sprawled in between desks on the floor, face up, staring up at a bunch of blurry strangers who were staring back at me.

I was totally confused; I had no idea what was happening, why I was lying on the cold, hard floor of the classroom, why all these people were there, and feeling so groggy that I couldn’t have told you my name if you had spotted me the T and the O. As with any grand mal seizure, I had lost consciousness, so the last thing I was aware of I was sitting at my desk with about 15 minutes left in the class session, finishing my test. I was later told that I had face-planted onto my desk (shattering my glasses), fell to the floor and began convulsing — to the horror of the students and instructor who witnessed it.

A few minutes after coming out of the seizure, I was loaded into an ambulance and whisked to Akron City Hospital, where I proceeded to endure a battery of tests to find out what happened and why. The initial fear was that a brain tumor had caused the seizure, but after undergoing X-rays, blood tests, an EKG, a CAT scan and even a spinal tap over the course of the weekend, it was determined that I had epilepsy, most likely caused by blunt-force trauma to the head, in turn most likely the result of playing with undiagnosed concussions during my high school football career. Concussion protocol in the 1980s wasn’t what it is today, so players often unknowingly had concussions and played on because there was no real standard system in place to monitor such things. Back then, you just had your “bell rung” and kept on truckin’ unless it was painfully obvious you had a problem.

The epilepsy diagnosis at the hospital actually came as a relief to me, considering the alternative. After all, you never want to hear your name and the words “brain tumor” mentioned in the same sentence. (It was the first of two pieces of what I considered to be good news that I received that weekend. The second was the unlikely ‘B’ that I got on that Algebra exam, seizure and all. To this day, it still stands as one of my proudest academic moments. Really.)

With no brain tumor to worry about, I quickly set about educating myself about epilepsy — what it was, exactly, and how bad it could be. In short, it’s a very serious central nervous system disorder brought about by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. In lay terms, when brain waves aren’t firing on all cylinders, the messages from the brain to the rest of your body are interrupted, causing a few different types of seizures. The two I have experienced are petit mal seizures (small ones mainly limited to the extremities and lasting just a few seconds) or grand mal seizures (large, violent ones where you lose consciousness and your entire body convulses for around a minute or two). The disease affects three million Americans and is the most common serious brain disorder.

There are also varying degrees of epilepsy, ranging anywhere from mild, where the disease is managed quite well with medication, and severe, where people have seizures daily and can’t drive a car, hold a job or live alone.

I fall more toward the mild version, where taking two anticonvulsant capsules a day does the job in preventing seizures. But it took a while to get to that point. As a result, navigating epilepsy since that day in Algebra class nearly 35 years ago has fluctuated somewhere between extremely frustrating and no big deal.

It took most of 25 years of trial-and-error by a revolving door of neurologists to get my medication and dosage just right. I was allergic to the first anticonvulsant that I was prescribed, then the one I was hastily switched to altered my personality so drastically — and not in a pleasant way — that I was no longer the same person I had been for the first two decades of my life.

As troublesome as that was, I was advised to stick with that particular medication because: a) I wasn’t allergic to it, and b) other than experiencing hundreds, maybe thousands, of shakes and jolts in my extremities — the petit mal seizures that are commonly known as “tremors” — I still only had that one grand mal seizure.

Aside from the tremors and short-tempered personality, there was a third issue brought on by the medication that almost derailed my college education and journalism career: sleep. As in, I couldn’t get enough of it. Ever. Eight hours, 10 hours, 12, more, it didn’t matter. I could never get enough sleep. And since sleep deprivation and changes in sleep patterns are known seizure triggers, that presents a major problem for epileptics. It’s still an issue for me, although not nearly as bad as it once was. Nor do you get a whole lot of sympathy from people for it (more on that later).

And the tremors themselves weren’t pleasant. Like the grand mal seizure my freshman year at Akron, these tremors came out of nowhere. I could be standing in the shower holding a bottle of shampoo, and my arm would suddenly jerk straight upward and send the bottle rocketing toward the ceiling. Or I could be standing in the kitchen holding a cup of coffee, and my hand would flinch and splash hot coffee all over the counter, floor and, worst of all, my body.

Usually, I was the only one present for those instances. As a working journalist, I wasn’t so lucky.

There were many times when, while sitting at my desk at my former employer’s office in Ravenna, I would be typing away at the computer and, completely out of the blue, my arms would suddenly lift up several inches to a foot high and come crashing down so hard on the keyboard that I was amazed it didn’t break. My co-workers nearby often thought I was angry about something and was pounding my fists on the keyboard on purpose, asking me what was wrong or telling me to calm down.

And I couldn’t count the number of times when I would be interviewing a coach or athlete in person and, while standing in front of them scribbling their quotes in my notebook, my arm would jerk and the ink pen I was using would fly out of my hand and travel several feet before landing on the ground — or sometimes even hit them on the fly.

I was always embarrassed when this happened. It would surprise them as much as it did me, and I would play it down and say the pen simply slipped out of my hand.

But I had no reason to be embarrassed, the way Justin Fields has no reason to be embarrassed or any other epileptic has any reason to be embarrassed. It’s a disease, but it’s manageable and we can lead normal lives to the point that no one would even know we had epilepsy unless we told them.

That point came for me in January 1996, when I had my second — and so far, last — grand mal seizure.

I mentioned above that I would have tremors at the computer, losing control of my arms and pounding the keyboard. Well, on this particular Saturday night while putting out the sports section — a hectic, stress-filled evening in the best of times — grand mal seizure No. 2 struck. And it struck the same way grand mal seizure No. 1 did: without warning, one second sitting at the desk, the next lying on the floor staring up at EMS personnel staring back at me. And like the first time, I was groggy, confused, couldn’t answer basic questions, etc., and only knew details of the seizure when told to me by witnesses after the fact — details like the seizure started with me launching backward out of my chair with such force that I knocked the metal heat register on the brick wall behind me to the floor.

It was September 1986 all over again, my own personal Groundhog Day, complete with the ambulance ride to the hospital — only this time, I hyperventilated on the way and thought sure I would be Dead On Arrival because I absolutely could not get any air into my lungs. As a result, I began to panic, which only made the situation worse. A paramedic in the ambulance sternly told me to calm down and breathe through my nose while fitting an oxygen mask over my face; within seconds, the sweet sensation of oxygen filling my lungs washed through me and my waves of fear subsided as we reached the hospital.

Since I was a diagnosed epileptic, another round of tests was unnecessary. Therefore, after being stabilized at the hospital, I was released after a few hours and told by doctors that I could not leave the house for a week and, worse, could not drive for six months until my medication had been properly adjusted. When this happens, the medical professionals have to report this to the DMV, which places a restriction on your driver’s license. I had to remain seizure-free during the entire six-month span to get my driving privileges back, and this required authorization from my neurologist. Even one seizure during that time would have meant a one-year suspension of my license.

Not being able to drive when your job is driving to cover games is a monster of a problem. The only way around it was to hitch a ride, and the chauffeur that drove me around for six months was my poor wife, Kim, who — after working all day — took me to cover games at night. Which also meant, in the days before remoting into the office, she had to drive me to wherever the game was, back to Ravenna and wait for me to write the game story, then back home.

Kim usually tried to grab some sleep in the break room while I wrote, with me having to wake her to drive me home. We often didn’t get back to where we lived in Cuyahoga Falls at the time until the wee hours of the morning. She would get a few hours of sleep, then have to get up and do it all over again the next day. For six months.

All the while, my body was slowly acclimating itself to the new med and dose. And by the end of those seizure-free six months, I finally had a medical regimen that worked, I still had a job and, most importantly, I was still married.

It’s been 25 years since that second grand mal seizure. I rarely have tremors anymore and while sleep is still touch and go, it’s far more manageable than it once was. I still have periods where I can’t get enough sleep — like this past weekend, for example, when, because of my current work schedule greatly affecting my sleep schedule, I basically slept most of Sunday and into Monday morning. But those times, thankfully, are few and far between now.

And through it all, I maintained a normal life. I graduated from college, worked 30-plus years in sports journalism, have traveled extensively with my wife, and lived as I would have lived had I not had epilepsy.

The same way Justin Fields played quarterback at Ohio State and will do so again in the NFL. Fields, like all epileptics, will have his battles along the way, but thanks to modern medicine, those battles are winnable as he embarks on a pro career that could go a long way toward erasing the stigma of epilepsy.

One drive at a time.

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I mentioned earlier that the sleep issue doesn’t exactly elicit a whole lot of sympathy from some people. The sad truth is, unless you’re rolling around in a wheelchair or obviously missing a limb or two, there are people actually walking this Earth who can’t wrap their minds around the fact that even though they can’t see you have a problem, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem.

I discovered this the hard way after my second grand mal seizure when a relative of mine — yes, I said relative, as in an alleged loved one — accused me of basically using my seizure as an excuse to get out of a family activity that week. That was followed a few days later by a monotone, empty-souled apology left on an answering machine that would have been better off left unsaid.

This same person has stated in the years since that I don’t have a sleep problem, I just “don’t want to do” things that I don’t like to do.

That comment was said to my face.

I assume this person is now a giant in the field of neuroscience.

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Fields won’t be the first NFL player who is epileptic, but as a quarterback, he will be one of the most visible. Pro Football Hall of Fame guard Alan Faneca played 13 years in the NFL with epilepsy; other well-known NFL players who are epileptic are Tiki Barber, Samari Rolle and Jason Snelling. One of my idols growing up, former Cleveland Indians third baseman Buddy Bell is also an epileptic.

Other notable people who were either confirmed to be epileptic or likely were epileptic reads like a who’s who of celebrity and world history: Agatha Christie, Danny Glover, Edgar Allan Poe, Elton John, Harriet Tubman, Julius Caesar, Lil Wayne, Lindsay Buckingham, Napoleon Bonaparte, Neil Young, Prince, Plato, Socrates, Tchaikovsky, Alexander the Great, Theodore Roosevelt and Vincent Van Gogh, to name just a few.

For many, if not most, of them, having the disease controlled by medicine wasn’t an option. Yet their contributions to humanity are immeasurable.

Rather than hide away and fear the world they lived in, they met their challenge head on and conquered the world around them. Figuratively — and, in the cases of Alexander the Great, Caesar and Napoleon — literally.

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Yes, my neurologists told me that blows to the head while playing football gave me epilepsy. And no, even knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t change a thing. Life doesn’t come without risk. Everything we do, every day of our lives, carries risk. If we make our life choices based on risk level, we won’t be doing much living. And avoiding risk is, well, unavoidable anyway.

If I hadn’t played football, I may have been out Friday nights engaging in far more dangerous behavior. And I’ve been in a lot of nursing homes and have seen the poor souls that reside in them suffering from cognitive diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, their bodies slumped in their wheelchairs but their minds gone, and the overwhelming majority of them never played a down of football.

No, I don’t regret playing football. I loved every minute of it, and I wouldn’t trade that experience and the life lessons I learned along the way for anything. I would do it all over again, with the same result. There are worse fates than what I’ve gone through. Fates that I may have suffered had I not played the sport. Fates that may well have prevented me from sitting here writing this column right now.

Life is to be lived, not feared.