Rolle secret: epilepsy

The Baltimore Sun

For eight weeks, Samari Rolle kept his condition a secret.

"I didn't know if I could play, if I would be all right or anything," the Ravens veteran cornerback said. "It was very scary."

But yesterday Rolle disclosed that he has epilepsy, a neurological condition that affects the nervous system and can cause seizures. He decided to publicly talk about his epilepsy "because it's under control now. Right now, I'm not scared."

He has had three seizures this season, which have kept him out of six games.

"I feel very good, more so emotionally," said Rolle, who returned to practice yesterday and is expected to play Sunday. "I've heard all kind of rumors of what I had. It's been hard on my wife and my family. I'm just happy to be back playing."

Other professional athletes have played with epilepsy, including Pittsburgh offensive lineman Alan Faneca, who was diagnosed with the disorder when he was 15. He's been an All-Pro guard for the Steelers.

Rolle, 31, said he has had three major seizures this season, although he now believes he has suffered minor ones for about two years. The seizures in epilepsy might be related to a brain injury or a family tendency, but most of the time the cause is unknown.

Along with the seizures, Rolle suffered such aftereffects as headaches and memory loss, all of which caused him to wonder if his 10-year playing career was over.

Neither Rolle nor the Ravens would disclose his illness over the past two months because Rolle wanted to keep it a private matter. A Ravens spokesman said the team doctors wouldn't comment on his condition or any restrictions during the game.

Epileptic seizures happen when too many electrical impulses fire at once and overwhelm the brain, said Kimberli Meadows, a spokeswoman for the Epilepsy Foundation.

"The concern for Samari would be the brain being knocked around, anything that could startle the brain," she said.

But Meadows noted that Faneca and numerous high school athletes play with epilepsy.

An epileptic patient should consult closely with his doctor and understand the particulars of his condition but need not avoid an active life, she said.

Meadows said epilepsy awareness and research efforts benefit greatly when a prominent person such as Rolle acknowledges having the condition.

"It's something that's been feared traditionally, so it is a tremendous help when we see a person who's impacted who is in the spotlight," she said. "When someone like Samari says I have epilepsy but it's not who I am, it does wonders for us."

Meadows said Rolle can be a hero for others and help them understand the warning signs of the condition. "They can say, 'If he's playing football, I can surely go for a job and live my life,' " she said.

Dr. Elizabeth Barry, epilepsy specialist at University of Maryland Medical Center, said "if his epilepsy is mild and well-controlled, there's no reason he can't play football."

Barry said it's important for Rolle to protect his head but noted that he does that normally by wearing a helmet.

"There could be a slightly greater risk of seizure for an epileptic who suffers head trauma, but that risk is there for anyone who suffers a blow to the head," she said.

She agreed with Meadows that prominent cases help the fight against epilepsy.

"Epilepsy is still very much in the closet for a lot of people, so if a prominent person shows that you can have it and be normal, that's great," she said. "We're very happy when someone like this comes out with his story."

Rolle said the past year has been the toughest of his life.

He acknowledged the 2006 season was the worst of his NFL career. He got beat deep in several games, causing many fans and media members to call him the weak link of the defense.

During the offseason, Rolle and his wife were in a near catastrophe on an African safari when the door of their single-propeller plane opened while traveling at 6,000 feet. With the door remaining ajar, the plane landed 10 minutes later on a nearby runway.

But the latest ordeal seems to have provided him with more perspective.

"I see him looking at things in a different light," said cornerback Chris McAlister, one of Rolle's close friends on the team. "Football is football. But his life and his family is what is most important."

Rolle's first seizure - which he called "the scariest" - occurred days before the Ravens' Sept. 23 game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Leaving his house to go to practice, Rolle noticed that his neck was swollen, his head was ringing and his tongue was bleeding. After the Ravens asked him to undergo testing, Rolle learned that he had two seizures that day.

Sitting out three weeks, Rolle was provided medicine from a specialist that caused him to feel lethargic and lose his coordination.

He eventually played two straight games before having a setback - another seizure.

"I was like, 'Man, what's the problem?' " Rolle said.

After using the past two weeks to correct his medication, Rolle is ready to play again for a Ravens team that has lost four straight games and has a slim hope of making the playoffs.

"I'm very excited. The season hasn't gone like we wanted it, and most people ask me, 'Why are you coming back? You're 4-6.' " he said. "These are my teammates and I love playing. It's time to come back. I can play, I can continue to play, and I can do so as long as I'm healthy."

Ravens coach Brian Billick expressed admiration for Rolle's fighting through the adversity.

"It emotionally takes a wear and tear on you," Billick said. "He was out there today and he looked good, smiling and ready to go."

When Rolle walked onto the practice field, many of his teammates were smiling, too.

"As a player and a friend, playing with Samari basically my whole career, to see him go through that was hard," said Ravens receiver Derrick Mason, who has been Rolle's teammate for the past 10 seasons.

"I'm just happy that he's able to come back out here and enjoy football. To me, it doesn't matter whether he plays another down or not. Just that he's OK. That's all that matters to me."

Rolle said epilepsy hasn't changed his life at home except that he can't drive.

"I know I can play with it," Rolle said. "I think everything will be OK. It's just great to feel normal again."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Sun staff reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

About epilepsy

Epilepsy affects nearly 3 million Americans of all ages and 50 million people worldwide. About 200,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

It is the third most common neurological disorder in the United States after Alzheimer's disease and stroke.

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that produces seizures. A seizure occurs when a brief, strong surge of electrical activity affects part or all of the brain. When a person has two or more seizures, they are considered to have epilepsy.

Seizures can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Symptoms vary from convulsions and loss of consciousness to more subtle signs such as blank staring, lip smacking, or jerking movements of arms and legs.

Seizures may be caused by stress, sleep patterns, alcohol consumption and photosensitive triggers such as flashing lights and bright, rolling images on television screens.

One in 10 Americans will experience a seizure in their lifetime. Prevalence of the disorder increases with age. Three percent of the population will develop epilepsy by age 75.

Males are more likely to develop epilepsy than females, and the incidence is highest among racial minorities.

Causes of epilepsy include head injuries, brain tumors, genetic conditions and infections like meningitis. However, in 70 percent of cases, no cause can be found.

Medication controls or reduces seizures in about 80 percent of patients. In other cases, nerve stimulation therapy and even brain surgery is recommended.

There is no cure for epilepsy.

Prominent athletes suffering from epilepsy include Pittsburgh Steelers' All-Pro guard Alan Faneca, Olympic hockey player Chandra Gunn and triathlete Mark Ashby.

SOURCE: Epilepsy Foundation

JAMISON HENSLEY AND MIKE KLINGAMAN

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