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OWINGS MILLS — Samari Rolle exhaled as if an anvil had been lifted off his shoulders, revealing Wednesday that the previously undisclosed illness he has been dealing with is epilepsy.
Three seizures, including one where he bit his tongue while driving his car to the Baltimore Ravens’ training complex, have cost him six games this season.
Now, Rolle, 31, is confident that with the aid of proper medication he has this neurological condition that affects the nervous system under control.
As joyful as Rolle is to be back on the football field, he was also happy to dismiss some cruel rumors that had been spreading about what was ailing him and grateful that the team kept his illness a private matter at his request.
"I feel very good, more so emotionally," said Rolle, who returned to practice Wednesday and is expected to play Sunday against the San Diego Chargers. "I just want to thank everybody that knew I had epilepsy, but didn’t come out and say anything about it and respecting me and my family.
"I heard all kind of rumors about what I had. It’s been hard on my wife and my family. I’m just happy to be back playing."
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that makes people prone to seizures, a change in sensation, awareness or behavior brought about by a brief electrical disturbance in the brain.
It’s not a mental illness, a common misperception about an illness that affects nearly three million Americans.
Symptoms include muscle spasms, convulsions, mental confusions and occasionally a loss of consciousness or memory loss.
In Rolle’s case, he was haunted by seizures, headaches and temporary memory loss that left the 10-year veteran wondering if his career was over. Rolle decided to make the announcement Wednesday, because he’s confident that the issue has been solved.
"It’s under control now," said Rolle, who added that he has unknowingly experienced minor seizures for the past few years. "That’s the main thing. Now, I’m not scared."
The one-time Pro Bowl cornerback’s first seizure this year happened prior to a game against the Arizona Cardinals, hospitalizing him for nearly two days and caused temporary memory loss.
At that point, Rolle wasn’t sure if his career was over or not. Initially, the medication prescribed to treat the seizures caused a lethargic reaction that made him dizzy and affected his coordination.
"The first was the scariest one because half my tongue was off and I drove to work and didn’t know if I had a seizure," Rolle said. "It was very scary, but the organization has been very helpful.
"I didn’t know if I could play, if I would be all right or anything. Then, I got on the medicine and I played against St. Louis and Buffalo and I felt fine."
Prior to a Monday night game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, though, Rolle incurred yet another seizure. This one kept him out of the past three games.
"Emotionally, I was hurt before the Pittsburgh game because I did everything to get back and thought I was better, then had another seizure," Rolle said. "I thought, ‘Man, what’s the problem. Now I’m just happy to be normal again and be part of the team like everyone else.
"The season hasn’t gone like we wanted it. Most people ask me, ‘Why are you coming back, you’re 4-6? These are my teammates and I love playing. It’s time to come back. I can do so as long as I’m healthy."
About the only lingering effect for Rolle is not being able to drive his car due to safety concerns because of the possibility of having another seizure behind the wheel.
"It sucks not being able to drive right now, but, besides that, everything’s good," Rolle said.
Rolle’s return was aided by the knowledge that Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro offensive guard Alan Faneca has conquered epilepsy to play in the NFL after being diagnosed as a teenager.
"He’s had epilepsy since he was 15 and he’s probably the best guard in football. I feel very good knowing what I know now," Rolle said. "Anything is possible. The people from my foundation right now are finding people we can contact just to let people know it doesn’t stop you. The way last year was for me, I’m not ending my career like this."
Behind the scenes, the Ravens kept searching for the correct medical solution while keeping his condition from becoming publicly known at the request of Rolle and his wife, Danisha.
"I just want to thank everybody that knew I had epilepsy but didn’t come out and say anything about it, respecting me and my family," Rolle said. "They did everything they could. They told me I didn’t even have to come back. I really appreciated it that. Now, it’s time to turn things around."
Rolle’s teammates remained supportive throughout his ordeal, keeping his illness in confidence and keeping him in their prayers.
"As a player and a friend, playing with Samari basically my whole career, to see him go through that was hard," said wide receiver Derrick Mason, a teammate of Rolle’s with the Tennessee Titans. "I’m just happy that he’s able to come back out here and enjoy football. To me, honestly, it doesn’t matter whether he plays another down or not, just that he’s okay.
"I think that’s all that matters to everyone in the locker room, that’s he’s still able to come out here and enjoy the guys out here and be with us. I’m just happy that he’s finally healthy now."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
FACTS ABOUT EPILEPSY
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that makes people prone to seizures, a change in sensation, awareness or behavior brought about by a brief electrial disturbance in the brain.
Epilepsy is not a mental illness.
Nearly three million Americans have epilepsy, but nearly half of those affected get inadequate relief from their seizures.
Eighty-five percent of people with epilepsy eventually achieve control of their seizures and lead successful lives.
There are at least 20 distinct types of epileptic seizures with symptoms ranging from mild to severe that can include muscle spasms, convulsions, mental confusions and occasionally a loss in conciousness. Usually a seizure lasts between a few seconds to a few minutes.
Head trauma, infection, neurological disorder or heredity can be root causes of epilepsy.
Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca has had epilepsy since he was 15 years old.
Other well-known people that have reportedly had epilepsy: Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Peter Tchaikovsky, Charles Dickens, Vincent Van Gogh and the apostle St. Paul.
For more information about epilepsy, go to www.efa.org or call 410-828-7708.