By: Mary Milewski
Dan Stephens has mastered his game. The University of Pittsburgh football player is a star on and off the field as he steps up to the challenges he loves: balancing athletics, academics—and diabetes control.
In some ways Stephens is different from his peers. The 6-foot-2, 295-pound native of Wheeling, West Virginia has perspective and drive that are uncommon for someone his age.
And, he partly thanks diabetes for his successes as a high-achieving scholar athlete who keeps his blood glucose levels in tight control.
In December 2004, the senior defensive tackle finished his master’s degree in public and international affairs, focusing on public administration and nonprofit management. This accomplishment follows a three-and-a-half year, straight-A (well, one B) undergraduate career that earned him a bachelor’s degree—all while performing as a defensive lineman for the University of Pittsburgh Panthers.
Stephens controls his diabetes with a regimen of multiple daily injections, using a combination of rapid- and intermediate-acting insulins by pen, frequent blood glucose tests throughout the day, carbohydrate counting, and, of course, exercise— lots of it.
Diagnosis—The Ultimate Challenge
Although at first it was hard to accept the diagnosis, Stephens learned about type 1 and worked hard to control it.
I was diagnosed at age 10,” he says. “I started feeling symptoms, and my parents thought it might be diabetes. I was losing weight and I was extremely thirsty all the time.”
A visit to the hospital resulted in the diagnosis that left Stephens, who already loved sports, feeling devastated and confused.
I knew it was going to change my life,” he says, recalling the days following his diagnosis. “I was really upset because I thought I was never going to play sports again.”
But that outlook changed as Stephens educated himself about diabetes.
How Diabetes Helped
Diabetes became a positive force, helping Stephens as he grew up.
He learned the importance of responsibility, schedules and healthy eating habits for achieving excellence in academic, athletics and blood glucose control.
“[Diabetes] probably made me a stronger person because many kids don’t have the responsibility of having to do it all on your own,” Stephens says of the demands diabetes put on his life. “When you have to do it all on your own, you tend to grow up faster.”
The routine that comes with being a type 1 has taught Stephens a discipline that he brings to his studies as well as football.
Stephens is also a member of the highly regarded Verizon Academic All-American team.
Tackling Glucose Testing in Class and on the Field
“I check my blood glucose on a normal day about 15 times,” he says. “On game days, I add another four readings. Over one whole day I can take 20 to 25 blood tests.”
His hard work pays off. Stephens shared his most recent A1C results: 5.6% and 5.9%.
“I want to make sure I know where it’s at,” he says. “I don’t want to let my teammates down if I were to spike.”
On the other hand, keeping his blood glucose up while on the field is also a challenge, he says.
“Really, I test it a lot during practice. If I don’t, then hypoglycemia can sneak up on me.”
A Different Approach to Diet
Stephens says he is different from nondiabetic athletes when it comes to counting calories.
“I watch fats and sugars in what I eat. I don’t eat anything with too many grams of carbohydrate or fat, but if I do, I make sure I take enough insulin to counteract it. And, if I exercise, I take less insulin.”
Before games, Stephens usually eats pasta and sometimes some meat, such as turkey.
“I don’t like to eat too much before games,” he says. “I’m a nervous type, so sometimes I have to force myself to eat. During practices and games I make sure I have glucose tabs with me. But since tabs are short-acting, I also carry crackers or sometimes peanut butter and crackers to eat before and during practices for slower absorption. I also get plenty of Gatorade during practices and games.”
Taking Sports —and Diabetes —Head on
Stephens always saw similarities between his diabetes, football and schoolwork.
“Since the diagnosis, I’ve always stayed very positive. I’ve found out that you get as much out of it as you put into it. Like sports, if you work hard at it, there’s nothing you can’t do with diabetes. You have to test your blood glucose, listen to your doctor and especially listen to your parents.”
Stephens enjoys speaking about diabetes before groups, especially children. He explains childhood diabetes in a very understanding way.
“Unfortunately, when you’re a young kid, you don’t want to listen to grownups,” he says. “But, you have to be willing to take it head-on to understand it and make it a part of your daily life.”
Stephens credits his parents—one is a high school superintendent and the other a high school principal—for inspiring him.
“My parents took a proactive approach toward my diabetes and really helped me with it,” he says.
A Rewarding Reputation
His teammates and coaches know Stephens for his strong character.“I’m probably the hardest person on myself,” he says. “I look at every detail in my life, with anything—from class to sports or diabetes management. If you take it like a game or a challenge, you’re going to be the best you can be at it. As a competitor involved in sports, I never wanted anything to beat me—especially not diabetes. So, I learned to control it.”
Mary Milewski, a Connecticut-based freelance writer with a master’s degree in journalism, has lived with diabetes for 15 years.