Mississippi native Kendall Simmons – all 6’ 2”, 311 lbs of him – was a force for a decade on the offensive line at Auburn University in Alabama, and as a pro on the Pittsburgh Steelers. So maybe not too surprisingly, for much of that time, as he now admits, he was “trying to be Mr. Big Man” when it came to his diabetes.
“I figured I had something really good going in my life, and this was just getting in my way,” said Simmons.
As a 23-year-old right guard, Simmons had a standout rookie season with Pittsburgh in 2002, but he started feeling unwell after minicamp in June 2003. “My energy levels were gone, I was going to the bathroom all the time, had cottonmouth like I was chewing towels all day, and I was shedding weight – as much as eighteen pounds in one day.”
After a couple of weeks, Simmons had lost forty-five pounds, but, undeterred, drove himself to training camp in Latrobe, PA, where the team’s medical staff promptly sent him to the E.R. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
“When the doctors told me I had diabetes, I really had no clue what that was. In the South, we just call it, ‘sugar,’” explained Simmons.
Simmons struggled with his blood sugar management that year, and tore the ACL in his right knee, wiping out his 2004 season. But 2005 proved to be a winner all the way around, with Simmons developing blood sugar management strategies that worked for him, and the Steelers winning the championship – the first of two with Simmons as a starter.
“I didn’t have any reason to fail playing for [Pittsburgh],” said Simmons. “[Owner] Dan Rooney has two kids with diabetes. Previously they had a player with diabetes,” he noted, referring to 1990s tight end, Jonathan Hayes. The team’s staff in many ways became part of his diabetes support network. “My trainers even went to my doctor’s appointments with me.”
In 2006, a fellow player living with type 1 diabetes – the 6’ 4”, 292 lb tackle, Scott Paxson – joined the team.
“Paxson – everyone called him T. Rex because he has really short arms – is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, but, man, he really struggled with [his diabetes],” Simmons said.
Like Simmons, Paxson didn’t want to accept that he had a disease that wasn’t going away. He was diagnosed at 15, but grew lax about his self-care when he first left home to attend Penn State. “In college, I got real immature with it,” said Paxson. “I wasn’t checking my blood sugar for weeks at a time. I bottomed out on the way to one class and woke up in the hospital. The doctors had to sit me down and explain.”
Paxson spent the better part of four years with the Steelers but hardly made it off the bench until 2011, when he joined the Cleveland Browns. The ups and downs of football may have helped Paxson with the potential unpredictability of diabetes. “Every day is different,” Paxson said. “You have to monitor yourself constantly and learn what works for your body.”
Now retired from football, Simmons lives in Auburn, AL, although he spends three to four days a week on the road speaking to people about diabetes. He also organizes a charity golf event in Auburn, Swing for Diabetes, which raises money for the Diabetes and Nutrition Center at the East Alabama Medical Center.
Both Simmons and Paxson credit the team and staff who understood the challenges of living with diabetes, but also saw room to improve the way players manage their blood sugar.
“I think one thing that could be a difference-maker for athletes with diabetes is if we had a chance to talk with more coaches,” Simmons said. “In my opinion, schools should set some time aside for clinics and education, because in today’s world, there are more and more kids living with diabetes, and you’re going to have to know how to deal with it and help those kids succeed.”
Justin Park is an award-winning health, sports, and fitness journalist and videographer whose work appears in Men’s Health, Shape, and MSN’s Fitbie. He currently lives in Alma, CO – at 10,700 feet, the country’s highest incorporated town. Park is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewees, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience