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Faneca: The best word is 'gratitude'

It's the nature of the position. An offensive lineman is taught and drilled to be a facilitator for his teammates. He is taught and drilled to use his body to plow a path for his running backs, just as he is taught and drilled to use his body as a human shield to keep defenders with bad intentions from getting to his quarterback. Football is known as the ultimate team sport, and within the ultimate team sport, its offensive linemen are the most anonymous and selfless of all.

It's fitting Alan Faneca was an offensive lineman, and it's only proper that he be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the best ever in his line of work.

A six-time finalist before finally getting the news that he was elected to the Hall of Fame, news that he remembers getting on Saturday, Jan. 23, at precisely 11:36 a.m. That had to be a joyous occasion, but also one tinged with relief, and for a lesser man, maybe laced with some frustration as well. What took so long? Why bring me to the precipice so many times and then deny me again and again? Was it the position I played? Or was it just me?

In such situations, there is always the potential for some bitterness, some lashing out at what could be perceived as an unnecessary and arbitrary wait. But that's not Alan Faneca, and he showed that with how he handled his day in the spotlight – Sunday, Aug. 8 – when he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2021.

Faneca chose to share his day with Hines Ward, a teammate, a fellow member of the Steelers 1998 draft class, and a player who was a big part of the team's Super Bowl XL victory over the Seattle Seahawks, as was Faneca. Ward served as Faneca's presenter, and he was asked by Faneca to be his presenter because it put the former Steelers receiver in front of many of the people who will vote yay or nay on Ward's candidacy for this same honor.

"Thank you to all of you: My family, friends, and to the entire Hall of Fame team," is how Faneca began his acceptance speech. "To my (Class of) 2021 classmates, and to my friend, teammate, presenter, and one day, taking his rightful place up on this stage – Hines Ward."

This is the kind of "help" a candidate sometimes needs to push him over the top, from finalist to inductee, and it's a tactic that has been used successfully by Steelers in the past. Mel Blount and Chuck Noll were presented by Dan Rooney; Franco Harris was presented by Lynn Swann; Swann, in turn, was presented by John Stallworth; Rod Woodson mentioned Dick LeBeau as a deserving candidate in his acceptance speech; and LeBeau spoke glowingly of the players he coached on the Steelers defense in his own acceptance speech.

After doing what he could to boost Ward's profile, Faneca then turned the spotlight of the occasion to a disease that could rock the foundation of a youngster, as it could have done to Faneca when he was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 15. He used his platform to let people know that epilepsy need not be a death sentence to their hopes and dreams for a bright future.

"The fact that I was actually being invited to become a member of this extraordinary football fraternity is hard to put into words. Perhaps the best word is simply, gratitude," said Faneca. "There are thousands of young boys around the country who dream of playing in the NFL. I was one of them. My dream was awakened in high school at the age of 15. One day we were pushing the five-man sled up and down the field, when one of my coaches, Don Carter, noticed me working extremely hard. He said to us, 'Alan here is going to be playing on Sundays.' This was the beginning of his pep talk to the guys to do better, because he saw that I was always working harder to be better. When I heard this my eyes got big, and I couldn't tell you the rest of what he said. But that's when my dream to play the NFL began. Thank you, Coach, for that and for so much more. Fifteen (years of age) was a transformative year for me. My dream of playing in the NFL was awakened. And I was diagnosed with epilepsy.

"I instinctively knew that I was not going to let anything prevent me from fulfilling this dream. I knew as long as I listened to my doctors and followed their guidance, along with a strong support system, I would be fine. I've always told myself and spoken publicly about the fact that epilepsy is part of me, but it does not define me. We are in charge of our destiny. I never want any health challenges to define us. We must define ourselves. Whatever one's challenge in life, whether we have a disability or not, my message is always to maintain an integral commitment. Do not let anything stop us from fulfilling our vision. Be resilient. We all get knocked down in life, but it's how we get up that matters."

A football scholarship to LSU, being a first-round pick by the Steelers in 1998, and then a full-time starter before the end of his rookie year all represented a series of ups. Soon, Faneca was making annual trips to the Pro Bowl and being recognized as one of the two best guards in the NFL by being voted first-team All-Pro.

It wasn't until his fourth NFL season that Faneca got his first taste of an NFL postseason. Then two seasons later, in 2003, Alan Faneca authored his Hall of Fame moment.

The Steelers were facing a road game against the Denver Broncos that season without injured left tackle Marvel Smith. Coming off back-to-back division titles, the Steelers were 2-3 when they boarded the plane for the flight to Denver, and without their starting left tackle and needing to protect a quarterback in Tommy Maddox who was the polar opposite of mobile, the team came up with a unique but seemingly suspect strategy. In passing situations, the Steelers would send Keydrick Vincent into the game to play left guard and slide Faneca out to left tackle.

Think about that. Slide a guard, who hadn't played tackle in college or to this point as a pro, to left tackle against a team that got most of its sacks from the defensive ends for a game at a venue where the crowd noise makes it one of the toughest in the league for a visiting team. How could that ever work? Thanks to Faneca, it did. Not well enough for the Steelers to win the game, but well enough to give them a chance to win because of a 13-play, 74-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 1-yard run by Jerome Bettis, and then a 2-point conversion run by Bettis tied the game with 2:41 left in the fourth quarter. That the Steelers didn't win had nothing to do with an offensive line that allowed no sacks on the 10 pass attempts during the tying drive.

"We brought a left guard in on third down and put Alan out at left tackle," said Coach Bill Cowher, who was inducted on Saturday night as part of the Class of 2020. "People would bring in receivers, we brought in linemen so we could move Alan to left tackle. He had that kind of versatility, that kind of amazing feet, and his athleticism was unique for how powerful he was."

Faneca started nine games at left tackle in 2003 because of injuries to Smith, and so it became the only time between 2001 and 2007 that he did not make first-team All-Pro at guard. He made second team.

"In closing, there are choices, decisions, and sacrifices that each of us as athletes who play this great game must make every day," said Faneca. "The choices we make outside of football are even greater because they aren't simply game choices, they are life choices. The sacrifice and discipline to choose to be the best kinds of fathers, husbands, and respected leaders we could possibly be, is greater than any responsibility we ever had to deal with in football. These values are foundation. I know I would not have this amazing life if God hadn't given me the opportunity to choose football. Thank you very much."

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