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Life with Diabetes: Football's Will Pericak

An NFL rookie and type 1 diabetes veteran

Will Pericak was a high school football player with dreams of making it big when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes his freshman year. At that moment, when some kids might question their dreams or look for reassurance that they should still dream big, Pericak had only to glance to his side. Because there stood his big brother, Thomas.

Thomas, diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a child, had already shown his parents that a kid can tackle, run, hit, play, or do whatever he desires along with the best of them. In other words, Thomas had done the advanced diabetes blocking to clear the way for his little brother to run with sports and diabetes: all the way to the NFL.

Now entering his rookie season as defensive end with the 2013 NFL championship-winning Baltimore Ravens, Will Pericak says that while it was hard work to make it as a pro living with type 1, he is proof that it – and almost anything a person aspires to – can be accomplished.

“I didn’t have to convince my parents because my brother, who loved basketball and played well, already had,” he said, after wrapping up a Raven’s camp day recently. “And I didn’t have to tell myself I could because I’d watched my brother do whatever he wanted to in life all our lives. I am lucky to have him.”

Knowing football was his passion, Will was determined to figure out what he needed to succeed. Through trial and error, practice and study, he found the system that worked best for him for play at a high level. For him, it’s multiple daily injections and lots of checking. Oh, and for him, it also means starting a game out with his blood sugar on the lower side. “I know my body,” he said, “and I know that for me, the adrenaline you experience in football – with starts and stops and crashes and pushing – ramps me up. So I like to start a game at about eighty.”

The key to success, he said, in almost anything with diabetes on board: Know your body. And remember that what works for someone else might not work for you. “That first season back (after diagnosis) was rough,” he said. “I was still figuring it all out, and I’d end up in the 250s during a game and just totally mad about it.”

Instead of getting down, he dug deep, not just tearing up his “two-a-days,” (days of double practice), but tweaking his plan until he had it down. That led him to a college career at the University of Colorado.

So what about the recruitment process? Did he have to reveal his diabetes and run potential suitors through his game plan? Not ever, he said. In fact, he finds that in football, as in life, how you perform often overshadows what you may have to do for that performance. “Coaches see what you can do on tape,” he said. “If you have good enough film and you produce results, the rest of it really does not matter.”

He did, however, have one case of being held back by diabetes: not knowing of his condition, the Naval Academy offered him a full scholarship to play there. “I had to explain and say no,” he said. But Colorado was a great choice, and the spot that led him to the NFL.

“On game days, I check as many as twenty times,” he said, “making sure I’m going where I need to go. I don’t like to enter a game feeling too full either, so I work out what to eat, and then when to sip a drink on field and when not to. It’s a process of figuring it out and adjusting when needed.”

Now, in the NFL, he finds it all a bit easier. First, he’s clear to say that while colleges did not ask about his diabetes, the Ravens did; they not only assessed his game plan and general health, but also did physicals that included A1C tests. And he totally gets it. “They are making a big investment in me,” he said. “They deserve to know and understand all this.”

With football as his full-time job, he’s finding he can plan his days better now than in college. His weeks have a pattern. Coaches and medical staff surround him, and there are always all kinds of good food choices available within arm’s reach. “It’s working out well,” he said. “I’m still working just as hard, but it’s really great.”

He can already see that he’s becoming a role model not just for children living with diabetes who dream big, but also for the large Baltimore population of people living with diabetes.

“These folks just need to know that diabetes absolutely does not hold you back,” he said. “And I mean from anything. Sure, it might take some extra work and attention, but that is so worth it when you get what you want. You can follow your dreams, and you should. Look at me. I am. I totally am.”

Moira McCarthy is an acclaimed writer, author, and public speaker who has shared her story – and lessons – on raising a child living with type 1 diabetes in the media, through books, and on her popular blog, McCarthy has appeared on CNN Live, Good Morning America, and Fox News. She was recently recognized as the JDRF International Volunteer of the Year. Her six books include the top-selling The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children With Juvenile Diabetes and the upcoming Raising Teens With Diabetes: A Survival Guide For Parents. McCarthy is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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