Gannon driven to combat daughter's disease

January 24, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

SAN DIEGO - There have been many low points in quarterback Rich Gannon's NFL career, like being traded by New England because the Patriots wanted to make him a defensive back. He once lasted two-thirds of a season in Minnesota before he was benched without an explanation. Gannon played briefly in 1993 for Washington, but sat out 1994 with a shoulder injury.

He once became a crowd favorite in Kansas City, but lost his job to Elvis Grbac, who was the favorite of coach Marty Schottenheimer.

But nothing was worse than the night in 1997 at the Chiefs' training camp when Gannon received an unexpected phone call from his wife, Shelley. The next night, Gannon's 1-year-old daughter Danielle was admitted to the emergency room. Two days later, she was diagnosed with celiac disease, a disorder that causes the small intestine to react abnormally to a protein called gluten, which is found in most bread, pizza and cake made with wheat, barley and oats.

It's also found in a lot of baby food, which Danielle had been on for about six months.

"I've been humbled several times in my career, but she helps put things in perspective," Gannon said. "This business is pretty much based on performance, and you get a chance sometimes after a tough loss to go home. When you see that she is all right and safe, it keeps everything in perspective.

"To see her with an I.V. in her arm, see her really sick, her ribs exposed and stomach bloated, was really a scary time. To now see her thriving as a young child is a blessing. But it's something you never forget, and something we want to make sure no parents have to go through."

So when the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore opened two summers ago, Gannon became a spokesman in a public awareness campaign. Today, his commitment is as strong as ever.

Besides visiting hospitals and making several trips to Baltimore during the offseason, Gannon is co-chairman of the International Walk for Celiac Disease, an annual, nationwide fund-raising event. Plus, for every touchdown reception by the Raiders this season, Gannon made a donation to the Baltimore research center.

Guess whom they will be rooting for in the Super Bowl?

"He has completely changed my opinion of football players," said Dr. Alessio Fasano, one of the world's top experts on the disease. "I thought they were dummies, big muscle, weighty guys. But he is very articulate. I'm not saying this because of the time he contributes or his economic impact, but he is a dedicated father who is approaching this as meticulously as he approaches a game. He truly cares about educating others."

Gannon has always been well-prepared. That's his M.O.: fair arm strength, great knowledge of the game. He is a little different from other players. The wardrobe is from the 1980s. He doesn't like cell phones.

He prepares Danielle's diet the way he prepares for a game. Weekly grocery shopping lasts about three hours.

Danielle is now 5.

"It's a travesty to be affected by a chronic disease, but we do have a way to treat it," said Dr. Fasano. "Think about it? How would you feel about being a kid, and then being told you can't eat cakes, cookies or pizza? It implies a change of lifestyle for the kid, but the major adjustment is feasible."

According to Dr. Fasano, studies completed in the mid-1990's indicated that one out of every 10,000 people in the United States has the disease, but a new report indicates it is one out of 130, which would put the total figure at close to 2 million.

The gluten corrodes the stomach lining, and the damage to the intestines keeps the body from taking in vitamins, calcium, protein, carbohydrates, fats and other important nutrients from food. In Danielle's case, she had symptoms for months such as ear infections, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting and ulcers, but her initial tests were inconclusive.

"We were feeding her, but she was really starving to death," Gannon said. "Actually, we were poisoning her without knowing it."

That's why Gannon wants to increase national awareness to help develop diagnostic tests and facilitate ways to gain information. Gannon is also involved in a soon-to-be-released book about food with gluten that will include a cake mix named after his daughter.

"A lot of people go undiagnosed because some of the symptoms are the chronic ones we deal with on occasions such as diarrhea, weight loss and vomiting," said Dr. Fasano. "Typically, a child with this disease would look like a malnourished kid you see in underdeveloped countries, the ones with the big belly. But this is much bigger than we expected. We are starting to see other signs such as fatigue, joint pain, mood changes. It can go on and on."

Gannon has taken up the fight, much like he has done throughout his career. After numerous stops on the NFL circuit, his big break came in 1999 when he signed with the Raiders. In his first year in Oakland, Gannon threw for 3,840 yards and 24 touchdowns

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