By: Brenda Neugent
Despite living with type 1 diabetes, fourth grader Joey Balistrieri wanted nothing more than to play football. But it would require advice from a professional player, Houston Texan tight end Jake Byrne, to convince Joey’s mom to let her son take the field.
“My first initial thought was ‘No way,'” said Therese Balistrieri, citing concern about protecting Joey’s insulin pump on the gridiron. It appeared that no amount of cajoling from Joey, now 12, and his older brother Tony, an avid football player, would persuade her.
But advice from Jake, at the time a college player with the Wisconsin Badgers-Joey’s favorite team-ultimately changed her mind.
Joey and Tony had contacted Jake,who was also living with type 1, via Facebook, and the pro athlete was more than happy to help convince Therese to let Joey play.
“When I was going through this, I didn’t know who to talk to,” said the Arkansas-born Byrne, who was diagnosed at age 16, when he was a sophomore in high school.
Given his lack of mentors at the time, he was happy to share his story in an effort to help ease Therese’s fears and help Joey continue to develop his confidence on the field.
“Here was the kid who was trying to stay on the field, trying to keep his grade point average up,” said Therese. “For him to take the time for us, he’s a role model, bar none.”
Jake told Joey that anything was possible, including football.
“You just have to be mature about it. You have to be a little more responsible,” he said.
Of course, those are all traits that any football coach would desire for his team, so Jake’s type 1 diagnosis did little to put a damper on hisown goal of playing professional ball. He’d carried it with him since grade school, and learning he was type 1 only served to give his dream more clarity.
He used his remaining years in high school as a “trial and error” period, learning more about his body and how food, heat, and exercise impacted his blood sugar, continuing that learning curve when he found himself playing under the more strenuous conditions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Everything stepped up a notch,” he said. “Longer practices, longer days.”
He established a routine, developed a way to protect his insulin pump from damage in the event of being tackled, and immersed himself in the game, establishing himself as a top player and ultimately catching the eye of professional coaches, including his current coach, Gary Kubiak.
As a professional player, he joins an elite group. Only one other player-Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears -plays with type 1.
“It Makes Me Try Harder”
“Sports and football is the reason I stay on top of it so well,”Jake said. “I have this goal, and a reason to keep it under control. It makes me try harder.”
He’s diligent about maintaining a healthy diet-important for both his career and managing his diabetes, eating a mix of complex carbs, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables.
He also chooses not to see his diabetes as a roadblock, and instead uses the discipline he’s developed managing his disease as a tool on the football field.
“I think it helped with discipline and my work ethic,” he said. “It helped to have a plan and set goals in my everyday life.”
That discipline is something he encourages young people like Joey to focus on as they find their way on the football field or other sports arenas.
“He sent pictures of how he protected his pump, and I was really impressed with that,” said Therese. “It helped me determine that Joey would be safe and could play.”
Joey and Jake both have Omnipod insulin pumps, which are wireless and tubeless so they’re safer on the football field, “and won’t get ripped off if I get tackled,” Joey said.
It also allows for easy adjustments in insulin to accommodate tough workouts coupled with high heat and humidity.
Joey just got back from diabetes camp, where he was surrounded by other kids with diabetes, much different from being at home in Wisconsin, where he is often the only one, and fields a lot of questions from his fellow students.
Joey, though, just takes it in stride, using his diagnosis as an opportunity to teach others, just like Jake did for him.
“He’s doing what he always wanted to do, and he didn’t let diabetes stop him, and I plan to do the same thing,” Joey said.
Mom Thesese agrees.
“For Joey, just because he has diabetes, it doesn’t have to stop him,” Therese said. “Whatever you have in life, you don’t have to see it as an obstacle. You can turn it around.”
Joy is about to start practice for this third year of football, where his fellow players say he’s a “beast” on the field. He was recently named a Wisconsin American Diabetes Association Youth Ambassador, in part because he has already helped raise $32,000 in donations for diabetes research, and hopes to follow in Jake’s footsteps and play pro ball someday.
Jake is currently in training camp for his second year with the Houston Texans.