Tackling Diabetes: Playing Professional Football with Diabetes

Posted by jake on Wed, 07/17/2013 - 18:05 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 on Podder Talk. 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 part three you will learn about Jake Byrne’s battle to become a professional football player with diabetes

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Jake embraces the challenge of being a professional athlete with diabetes.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Ask any little boy this question and you’ll get the truest words he’ll ever speak. In the third grade, when my teacher walked around the room asking students this question, my answer came straight from my heart.

“I want to be a pro football player.”

My teacher gave a perfect response: “You can do whatever you want as long as you are willing to work for it.”

That encouragement became fuel, enflaming my passion for football. And though nothing could extinguish my dream, I had to deal with plenty of threats to that dream.

Everyone has those moments; challenges that knock us down, drop us to our knees and make us look up and ask, “Why?” These are defining moments that make us who we are. When we encounter these life challenges, we can give up or hold tight to our dreams and plow forward.

My Diabetes Diagnosis

As a teenager, I was running full steam forward toward my dream thinking I had life all figured out. My first year of high school football, I’d earned a starting spot on varsity. At 6’5” and 240 pounds, I was the youngest as well as one the biggest kids on the team. But the biggest part was soon to change.

After playing an entire season, I dropped 40 pounds, was fatigued, malnourished and had no idea what was going on with my body. I began to increase meals and shakes. I was drinking over a gallon of liquids a day, eating all I could, working out, but continuing to lose weight.

One month before my 16th birthday, I walked into the doctor’s office with what I thought might be a bladder infection and walked out with a disease I was told I’d have to live with for the rest of my life.

My challenge: type 1 diabetes. But like I said, moments like this define who you are.

I took this news as well as anyone at that age would, feeling beaten up, but not defeated. Being a stubborn 15 year old worked in my favor. I embraced my diagnosis as a challenge; a head-to-head match-up with type 1 diabetes. Diabetes would mean a change to the game plan, but not losing the game. It might take all four quarters and maybe an overtime or two, but I was going to college to play football. Diabetes would not change that, but it would change what I had to do to get there.

As soon as I was diagnosed, I got on insulin. Wow! What a difference in the way I felt. I could finally get my body back to where it was meant to be. After I had time to figure out my dosing, the best thing since before my diagnosis happened: I was put on an insulin pump. I could eat without a regimented schedule again!! And I could eat more like a kid without diabetes.

Making my Dream a Reality with Diabetes

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Jake makes a catch while a member of the Wisconsin Badgers.

I took the next basketball season off to hit the gym and begin sculpting my body into a college athlete’s body. I ate healthy, worked out twice a day and did everything my endocrinologist told me to do.

It didn’t take long to get up to 250 pounds to fit the perfect mold college recruiters were looking for. After finishing up a very good junior year, I earned scholarships from Division 1 schools across the country.

I made several college visits and the words from one college coach stuck with me. After Wisconsin Badgers Coach Brett Bielema offered me a scholarship, he said, “I’m not going to promise you the world, but I will promise you an opportunity. What you accomplish with that opportunity is up to you.” I was thrilled. All I’ve ever wanted was opportunities to work toward success.

I graduated early from high school and never looked back. I worked hard and overcame any obstacle thrown my way. No way was diabetes going to take me off the field. I came up with a diet that worked with my regimen. I worked with my insulin pump doses daily to keep my blood glucose levels steady. I even designed a back plate to protect my insulin pump while I played. Diabetes would not beat me.

Meeting Joey

During my time with the Badgers, I was contacted by Joey Balistrieri, a 4th grader with type 1 diabetes. He wanted to play football, but his mom wasn’t so sure that was a good idea. Joey and I shared communication back and forth. I was impressed with his determination. Like me, he also had the same drive and passion for sports. I shared everything I knew about playing football with diabetes and he was all ears. He’s played two seasons now and hasn’t missed a beat. I couldn’t be more proud of him.

What Joey doesn’t know is I actually look up to him. I had the pleasure to come to his house and have one of the Balistrieri Italian feasts. I was able to sit down and get to know more about him. He’s an amazing kid with discipline and the maturity to play every sport without a hiccup. But what really made me see what an amazing young adult he is was when he was elected the 2013 American Diabetes Association's Youth Ambassador for Wisconsin.

Dealing with your own diabetes and taking care of yourself is a full-time job. Joey goes over and beyond that by looking out for all other people with diabetes and doing more than his part to help others who struggle with this disease.

I enjoyed getting to know Joey and his family during my college years. I finished up college, giving the University of Wisconsin all I had every Saturday until the next the next chapter of my life was beating at the door: the NFL.

Joining the NFL with Diabetes

I read that out of 100,000 high school seniors playing football, 9,000 become college players, and of that 9,000, only 215 become NFL players. That’s about 0.2%. And out of that 0.2%, I was the only rookie with diabetes going into the 2012 football draft. Even with those odds against me, all I wanted was a chance and a chance I was given.

It had been a long fight for living out my dream - and it continued. I signed as a Free Agent with the New Orleans Saints. Finally, I had my chance to put on an NFL uniform and play in NFL games. That dream that had taken root in my heart when I was nine years old came true. But as they say, the NFL often stands for “Not For Long” and I was released from the team. Though it seemed like my dream was cut short, I wasn’t about to give up.

Today, eight years after my diabetes diagnosis, I’ve received another opportunity to live out my dream. After finishing the 2012 season with the Houston Texans, I’m now about to start the battle to keep my spot on this roster.

Nothing about the NFL is easy, but nothing about type 1 diabetes is either. Eight years ago, I lined up against type 1 diabetes and it has been back and forth battle, challenging me at every level. I’ve had my big plays against diabetes and it’s fought me back, but this game is far from over.