With football behind him, Alan Faneca finds more inspiration

An exceptional college and pro football career put guard Alan Faneca on the fast track to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

As if to remove any doubt about his worthiness, the former LSU Tiger and Pittsburgh Steeler slipped in one more extraordinary accomplishment between election and induction.

Nine times an NFL Pro Bowler, six times an All-Pro and a consensus All-American at LSU in 1997, Faneca switched sports after ending his football playing days. On a whim last fall, he began training for a marathon, having dropped more than 100 pounds from his playing weight.

On the same day Seattle devoured Denver for the Super Bowl title, Faneca ate up the 26.2-mile course at the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon in 3 hours, 56 minutes, 34 seconds, an amazing time for a man his size in his first try.

Faneca’s Hall of Fame biography may require future editing if his running career stays on track. But even before his latest exploits, he was an easy pick for the 30-member Louisiana Sports Writers Association panel that elected him last summer, the second consecutive year an ex-LSU offensive lineman was chosen.

He’ll be honored June 21, a highlight of the June 19-21 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction celebration.

“It’s a great honor, and it took me completely by surprise,” Faneca said. “It’s a tribute to all the teammates I’ve played with. I remember (former LSU center Kevin Mawae) being elected last year, but this came out of left field.”

So did the news of his marathon run, for most of his fans. Faneca, a burly 320-pounder during his college and pro playing days, was nearly unrecognizable after changing from his 4,000-calorie-per-day diet to 1,800 upon his retirement after the 2010 season. He also stopped his daily hour cardio workouts and weightlifting sessions.

On a beautiful day last fall, he decided to join his wife, Julie, for a run around New Orleans’ City Park, which got him back in exercise mode. On a future run, he took a notion to go straight for the long way around the park rather than turning right for the shorter route — and it fired his desire.

“That’s how it started,” he said. “I ran about seven miles and remember thinking, ‘That was fun,’ and I got into it. I started thinking about running a half-marathon. I was winging it, didn’t know anything about running.”

On a visit to Pittsburgh, Faneca confided in some of the Steelers trainers that he was thinking of doing a half-marathon and, when they offered him encouragement, he took it as a challenge.

“They told me, ‘Oh, you got this; that’s going to be easy for you,’ ” Faneca recalled. “I thought to myself that I wasn’t looking for ‘easy.’ So I came home and started training for the full deal. I got some coaching help, and I was able to finish.

“I never imagined I would do this. Even when I started training, I was thinking I would ‘try’ to do a marathon. It was fun, exciting, painful. The last couple miles were interesting on a multitude of levels. But it’s exciting, a new chapter in my life.”

The former LSU star grew up on the West Bank but left the state for his four years of high school at Lamar Consolidated in Houston. He had attended John Curtis from fifth until eighth grade, and his room was adorned in purple and gold gear.

Even with his Louisiana roots, he committed to Alabama a day before National Signing Day in 1994 but changed his mind the next morning. He redshirted his freshman year but then started every game at right guard the next three years — 36 straight — as LSU changed coaches from Curley Hallman to Gerry DiNardo.

“He was one of the guys who was a great student of the game and his technique,” DiNardo said. “He broke the game down more coach-like than player-like. ... He was a quiet guy, not a vocal leader. Everyone looked at him and really respected how hard he worked, how attentive to detail he was.”

Said LSU linemate Ben Bordelon, with whom Faneca played two seasons: “You could tell from the first day of practice he was going to be something special.”

With Faneca up front and Kevin Faulk in the backfield, LSU became known for its physical running game. He was a second-team All-America pick as a sophomore and a consensus All-American as a junior. In 1997, he was one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy, given to college football’s best interior lineman.

After that season, he and Faulk, who became LSU’s all-time rushing leader, had to decide whether to move on to the NFL. Most fans and even the LSU coaching staff expected Faneca to stay and Faulk to leave, but the reverse happened.

Faneca made his tearful farewell at a news conference after learning from the NFL Advisory Committee that he would undoubtedly be a first-round pick.

“It tore me up to leave friends and take that big of a step and leave the comfort zone of LSU,” Faneca said. “I equate it to the decision to retire. It was a lot of little things; my recruiting class and core buddies had already moved on. Felt like the right thing to do.”

The Steelers made Faneca the 26th player picked in the draft, and he paid immediate dividends when injuries hit their offensive line in 1998. He received the franchise’s Joe Greene Award as the top rookie and by 2001 was named to his first of nine consecutive Pro Bowls. He was an All-Pro in 2001-02 and 2004-07.

Faneca was as durable as he was talented. He started 201 of 206 games he appeared in and started all 16 games in his final nine seasons. He helped the Steelers win Super Bowl XL; he provided the key block to spring teammate Willie Parker for a 75-yard TD run, the longest carry in Super Bowl history, on the second play of the second half to give Pittsburgh a 14-3 lead against Seattle.

He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-2000s team and was chosen to the Steelers’ 75th anniversary all-time team in 2007.

“I was immediately drawn to him because of how great a player he was,” Steelers teammate Brett Keisel said. “Steelers fans loved him. They were drawn by the way he plays the game, a no-nonsense player.”

Faneca loved Steelers fans back, saying it was the closest thing to playing college ball than for any other team in the NFL. His enduring memory was a picture he dug up that showed him holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft while the team celebrated at Ford Field in Detroit.

Pittsburgh had to win its final four games in 2005 to make the playoffs and then won four consecutive playoff games to take its fifth Super Bowl title.

Faneca left the Steelers as a free agent after the 2007 season and played two years with the New York Jets. He was cut and then picked up by Arizona, coached by former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, and Faneca was reunited with his old offensive line coach, Russ Grimm. He played one season there and retired, even though the Cardinals wanted him back.

Faneca is far from being a full-time distance runner now. His off-field contributions are many, including extensive work with the Epilepsy Foundation of America. Faneca was diagnosed with the disease at age 15 and has controlled it since with medication.

His 9-year-old daughter, Anabelle, also has been diagnosed with a form of the disease called Sturge-Weber Syndrome. Faneca is moving his family, which includes 3-year-old son Burton, to the Washington, D.C., area to be closer to Anabelle’s specialist.

He has at least one more appearance in Louisiana on June 21.

“It’s going to be exciting to have friends and family there, and to be in that group of (inductees),” he said. “It’s truly an honor.”