Rob Oller | Justin Fields can turn NFL gossip into good by educating public about epilepsy
The NFL is terrible at keeping secrets. Especially as the draft approaches, gossip is the name of the game.
Knowing how the league rumor mill works, no way Justin Fields was going to make it to draft day on April 29 without news getting out that he manages epilepsy, and has done so since being diagnosed with the neurological disorder as a youth.
Fields’ condition, first reported by the NFL Network on Wednesday, did not negatively impact his performance during two seasons as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, but that did not stop “sources” from spilling the beans about his medical background.
NFL teams became aware of Fields’ epilepsy during the pre-draft process, and from there the seedy side of human nature likely took over. To wit: A team hoping to land Fields later in the first round might have leaked information about his health status to the media, knowing it could scare teams from taking the 22-year-old.
Considering the majority of mock drafts predict Fields will be selected in the top 10, ranging from San Francisco at No. 3 to Denver at No. 9, would anyone put it past say, New England at No. 14, to leak medical information to cause other front offices to wonder about Fields’ health?
Fields did not want his medical chart to go public.
“I’m sure it’s not something he wanted to share with everybody,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said, adding that Fields is very private.
But now that it’s out there, why not embrace the chance to become a spokesperson? Specifically, Fields can be a role model in showing others who have epilepsy how to overcome its physical and emotional challenges.
“A lot of people do keep quiet about (having) it, because of the stigma,” said Kathy Schrag, executive director of Epilepsy Alliance Ohio, which has offices in Columbus and Cincinnati. “It was brave of him.”
I would amend to suggest it can be brave of him, if Fields embraces the opportunity to promote epilepsy awareness the way Pro Football Hall of Fame guard Alan Faneca did in involving himself with the Epilepsy Association of Western and Central PA while playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Like Faneca, Fields manages his epilepsy through medication, diet and rest, but the psychological journey often proves just as taxing. Not every type of epilepsy is the same, and some forms are severe enough that not everyone will be able to play sports at a high level, Schrag said. But all types tend to cause negative reactions, of discomfort more than compassion, among those who mostly associate the disorder with seizures.
“Some people think it’s a mental illness, which it is not,” Schrag said, describing epilepsy as “an excessive discharge of electricity in the brain.”
Neither is epilepsy contagious or evidence that a person is possessed.
“There’s also the stigma that epilepsy is a sign of low intelligence, which it is not,” Schrag said. "Many are brilliant. There’s also the myth that someone having a generalized seizure could swallow or bite their tongue.”
It is no myth that Fields got tongues wagging. It speaks to his extreme discipline and perseverance that he cared for his body by eating right and getting enough sleep, both of which contribute to proper management of epilepsy. Fields lived by himself as an Ohio State student — less stress — and switched to a vegan diet that at least anecdotally appears to benefit those with epilepsy.
“He takes all that stuff very, very seriously,” Day said of the way Fields protects his body. “We never had any issue with his health. He never missed a game and the only snaps he missed were after taking a shot to his knee and the shot he took during the Clemson game. He was always a pro about his body and his health.”
If NFL teams are smart, they won’t let epilepsy scare them into passing on Fields. And if Fields is smart he will seize the moment to educate those who recoil at the mention of a disorder that affects 1 in 26 people.
Fields already has a history of going public for causes he believes in, evidenced by his online petition in August to resume the Big Ten football season. He now has a chance to chip away at the stigmas and myths associated with a disorder he has managed like a pro.
Time to put gossip to good use.