Padecky: Cardinal Newman’s Steve Adams not running away from epilepsy fight

Cardinal Newman senior Steve Adams trains on the track in Santa Rosa in preparation for this weekend’s state meet in Fresno. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat)

Cardinal Newman senior Steve Adams trains on the track in Santa Rosa in preparation for this weekend’s state meet in Fresno. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat)



Two years before his world would change forever, the warning signs began but Steve Adams didn’t see them. Like a thief in the night they came. Hidden from view they were, a faint image if he had noticed them at all. He was a freshman at Cardinal Newman, a teenager entering a rite of passage. So much was going on, so much to think about, the arm tremors were no more than a forgettable nuisance. A housefly to be dispatched.

In the beginning, maybe once a month his hands would betray Adams. They shake. No preamble. Just shake. Or Adams would hold something and then, as if listening to a command from someone else, his hands would lose their grip and a pencil or a cup or a piece of paper would fall to the ground. Adams would shake his head. Whatever.

Adams literally was a body in motion. He made it to state his freshman year as a cross-country runner. He was a smart kid. You could lose weight just watching Adams move about; he had so much energy to burn.

And then Adams stepped into that hotel elevator in Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia in July 2013. Adams was attending the National (Boy) Scout Jamboree. The tremors now were occurring twice a week.

“I kinda lost awareness,” he said, “until I hit something.”

He hit the back wall of the elevator. He caromed upright. Ten seconds later Adams wobbled on his feet. A few of the seven other people in the elevator steadied him. Then about 10 seconds later, maybe 15 seconds he guesses, Adams couldn’t be caught.

“I might have fallen (to the floor),” he said.

“My son did fall to the floor of the elevator,” his father, Dale, says he was told later. Dale was back in West Virginia for the Jamboree as well but not with his son at that moment. Adams was taken to his hotel room. Weak of walk, he was supported by two good Samaritans, who put his arms around their necks.

Adams lay in his bed for 30 minutes and decided to press on with the Scout activities.

“I thought it was muscle spasms,” said Adams, not one to give up and give in easily, a trait that would come to define him in the next 17 months.

Back home a week later Adams went to Sutter Hospital for tests. Initial results offered two possibilities — Adams either had a tumor or epilepsy.

“I was hoping it was a tumor,” said Adams, quite possibly the only human in recorded history who has ever said that. “If it was tumor it could be removed and I’d be done with it.”

It wasn’t a tumor. Adams, 17, had and has Juvenile Onset Epilepsy.

And thus began the quite incredible, remarkable, astounding journey to where Steve Adams is today.

He will run Saturday in Fresno at the state cross-country championships.

If there was such a thing as the CIF Comeback Athlete of the Year, Adams gets the award and, to be perfectly fair, a parade and Jimmy Kimmel as well.

“Steve is the guy who came off the floor of an elevator to run in the state meet,” said his coach, Chris Puppione. “This is like the St. Louis Rams taking a quarterback (Kurt Warner) from the Arena League who becomes the Super Bowl MVP.”

Puppione, a 1997 SSU graduate with a degree in creative writing, understands and employs quite well the gift of hyperbole. It is not only warranted but even necessary to exaggerate how Adams made it this far. Words like “courage” and “determination” are faint and inefficient indicators, representing much more modest achievements, like running with a cold or a sore ankle.

Adams has reached another level of compliment, an elevation rarely occupied, which will be represented in the following paragraph.

“I never hid this,” Adams said. “I just didn’t want to talk about it. I was and I guess I still am working out how to deal with epilepsy and what is expected of me. I struggled to get a sense of what I was and where I was going.”

Very few people know of his condition: His parents, his close friends and maybe a teammate or two. That’s it. “Hey! Guess what? I am an epileptic!” That’s not usually a conversation starter among teenagers in hallways between classes.

Adams doesn’t have a lot of time to debate internally how much should he reveal. Fact is, the kid who wants to be an aeronautical engineer is working hard to understand the disease and all of its complex tributaries.

Consider what is on his plate.

The base definition: Epilepsy is a disruptive neurological condition that affects the nervous system. Brain cells may fire uncontrollably at four times the normal rate.

The possible side affects from the medications necessary to control epilepsy: Fatigue, dizziness, weight gain, loss of bone density, speech problems, depression, organ inflammation and suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

The myths dispelled by the truth: Epileptics are not violent, quite capable of holding jobs and are not neurologically disabled. Epilepsy is not contagious.

Areas of activity to be tightly controlled or eliminated altogether: Swimming, climbing, use of power tools, operation of motor vehicles and contact sports.

Now a senior, Adams was impacted his junior year, just months after his seizures. “I was mildly depressed, generally less happy,” he said. The school year and his cross-country season was a struggle. He was taking Keppra, an anti-convulsant. The very common seizure medication was preventing episodes but also affects thinking and reactions.

By the time first-year Newman coach Puppione met his cross-country team for the first time in June of this year, Adams had done enough processing that it was very clear to him what he must do. And what he did, Puppione had never experienced before.

“You’re gonna make me work hard,” Adams told Puppione. Yes, TOLD. Puppione had coached such elite runners as Olympian Kim Conley, stars like J.K. Withers and Sarah Sumpter, but in his 16 years as a track and cross-country coach Puppione had never had a runner approach him like Adams.

“My first reaction? I thought to myself ,‘Who are you?’ ” Puppione said. “He was holding ME accountable. And then I kept talking to him and finding out more about his situation. He was treating epilepsy like it was a blister. And he can run with a blister.”

Puppione found out Adams was no shrinking wallflower. Not boastful or rude, Adams nonetheless didn’t want his senior year in high school to pass without finding out how good he could really be. It was at a 25-team cross-country meet in Pleasanton in September in which both coach and runner shred the last bit of hesitation or apprehension Adams would be placing himself in harm’s way.

“It was 98 degrees,” Puppione said. “The heat was unbearable. Steve was totally exhausted afterward. He pushed himself to the limit and there were no reactions.

“That was the turning point for us.”

That’s when Puppione pushed and Adams responded. Last Saturday at Hayward High School, Adams entered the NCS cross-country meet and he might as well have entered without a name or number.

“Steve was a guy nobody worried about,” Puppione said. “He was on no one’s radar.”

By design, and because Adams is most comfortable this way, Puppione had his guy start slow. Adams was 45th after the first mile. He was 25th after the second mile. With 600 meters to go he was 18th. Like the rabbit who sees the carrot,

Adams sprinted to 14th, qualifying for state.

“That race is an allegory for his life,” Puppione said.

To those who thought Adams was just filler material in the NCS, the collective gasp was like a sucking sound in Hayward. Adams stunned them, and they didn’t even know the whole story. They didn’t have any idea. They do now.

“By telling my story,” said Adams, who has not suffered a seizure in at least six months, “I hope to inspire others. I didn’t let it beat me. Overcome. Don’t give up.”

Adams is a good patient. Driving right now is not necessary. He gets rides. He can’t swim. He has to go to bed at 9:30 every night; Adams and his docs suspect lack of rest and stress brought about the episodes. OK, fine. I’ll rest. I can’t go rock climbing?

“But I love to rock climb,” Adams said.

OK. I won’t, he thinks to himself. On the other hand …

“I do trees,” Adams said with a smile. He gave that glance that kids do when they sneak their hand in the cookie jar, hoping no one saw him.

Sorry, Steve. Everyone will be looking now. You never wanted to hide anyway. Now people will know what you have done: That sometimes the race is won without ever having to step onto the track. Like this Saturday in Fresno.

No matter how fast everyone else runs at state, no one, absolutely NO ONE, will have covered as much ground as Steve Adams has.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at

  • Dave Geoffrion

    Thanks, Steve, for inspiring us all to greater heights, and thank you for representing the Cardinal Newman community at the state meet this weekend!