Tackling Diabetes Series: Getting on Board with Joey Playing Football

Posted by therese on Fri, 07/12/2013 - 11:54 in

We are excited to feature the stories of 12-year-old Wisconsin American Diabetes Association Youth Ambassador Joey Balistrieri and professional football player Jake Byrne. In this four-part “Tackling Diabetes” series, you will learn about their individual journeys and discover the bond they formed through football and diabetes. In this second installment, you will hear from Therese Balistrieri, Joey’s mother. 

The Balistrieri family.

As the parents of a very active pre-teen boy, my husband Joe and I struggle with how far we can let him go on his own.  We want him to be like any other “normal” 12 year-old-boy, but he isn’t. He has type 1 diabetes. One challenge we face is not to let diabetes define who he is. He’s Joey - a great kid, good athlete and good student who happens to have a disease that makes him a little different.

When Joey announced that he wanted to play football, my heart stopped for a brief moment. He had talked about football for years. His big brother Tony plays and he idolizes him and wants to do everything he does. But he was always too young according to the league rules. So, in spite of the fact that I still wasn’t ready, he had finally met the age requirement and we were about to have our first big struggle – do we allow him to play? On one hand, how can we say no? He loves the game, but how can I let him play a game where he is going to be on a field far away from the bench…and what happens if he goes low on that field??

The thing about football, sleepovers, going to the mall with friends, etc. with diabetes is this:  I'm not there to make sure he does what he is supposed to do!  After many discussions and sleepless nights, my husband talked me into letting him play. Joey had pulled out all the stops, connecting with Jake Byrne, a college football player who also has diabetes. Jake even used the same insulin pump as Joey. So it was finally time for me to get on board.

Here's the thing, the reason for the apprehension: this team practices six days a week, from July 25-September 1, in full pads and helmet. It's hot in Wisconsin in the summer, even in the evenings. Joey gets dehydrated very fast, landing in the hospital twice due to it, so making sure he was getting enough to drink was going to be imperative. Strenuous exercise also results in quick blood sugar drops, which means he could pass out. We had to make sure we had a lot of glucose tabs or juice available. At least with his Omnipod insulin pump, we could control how much insulin he would get during practice – that was a huge plus.

My husband Joe worked it out that he would be able to help coach, so he would always be on the field near Joey. And that was what clinched it for me. Okay, we are going to do this.

As parents of a child with a disease like diabetes that has to be monitored 24/7, it’s been challenging.  We have a lot of sleepless nights and worrisome days while he’s at school. And from what I’ve been told, as he gets older it’ll become more of a challenge. But, with diligence, the right diabetes management tools, support from his family, friends, teachers, clergy, and the little things like his cool sports bag that he carries his supplies in, we’ll be okay.

The sky’s the limit for Joey, and all kids with diabetes. As parents we just have to jump on board that dream with them, figure out how to make it work and watch them soar.

By the way, Joey’s football team has had two successful, undefeated seasons.  Joey is a beast on the field. I’m so proud of him.