As an NFL quarterback, Jay Cutler makes his living putting a football into the hands of an open receiver before getting slammed to the ground by a huge defensive lineman. It’s a stressful occupation, all about timing, a little luck, and seeing the big picture in a split second.
So when Cutler lost 35 pounds and felt continually tired during April workouts for the 2008 season with the Denver Broncos, he wrote it off as stress-related. When a team trainer pulled him aside after a routine physical, Cutler never saw it coming.
“I think you need to see a doctor,” the trainer told the 25-year old quarterback, pointing to a blood sugar of 550. “I think you have type 1 diabetes.” Cutler remembers how the conversation ended: “Everything is going to be OK.”
“I knew the word ‘diabetes,'” Cutler says, looking back at that moment, “but not much more than that. I went to the doctor after leaving the trainer’s office and learned how to take injections and use a glucose meter. I started asking questions and went online looking for information.”
And Cutler did something else. He made a phone call to his quarterback coach from Vanderbilt, where he had set numerous school records for touchdowns, rushing yards, and most starts as a quarterback. But the call to Jimmy Kiser wasn’t about stats.
“Jimmy was a type 1 diabetic,” Cutler says, “and there were times when he would start talking off the wall stuff, and it wasn’t going anywhere, and all of us on the team knew it was time to bring Jimmy a Coke. He told me to wait 30 minutes after injecting insulin and see what’s happening, because everybody’s body is going to react differently.”
Cutler continues, ” I had lived 25 years a certain way and suddenly had to start counting carbs. It’s a very personal disease, and people aren’t going to help you with it. You need to deal with it yourself. It’s a transition phase for me right now. I’m still in it.”
Cutler tried an insulin pump early on, but quickly decided that injections were easier (and pumps aren’t really designed for NFL football games). After some trial and error, he learned to go into the game with a blood sugar between 100 and 150 mg/dL and then check every time he comes off the field during the first and second quarters. If he is low, there is always Gatorade nearby—the drink players pour from a barrel over the coach after every win. By half time, Cutler says, he pretty much knows where his blood sugar is going to be for the rest of the game. That’s the routine he’s been following for the past two years.
“I check more than average people do,” he says. “I always want to see where I’m at. So if I start getting over 200 before we take off for a road game, I have no problem sticking myself on the plane in front of everybody. I check when we land, too. I always have a Snickers or Milky Way nearby to offset a low.” Cutler takes Humalog before meals during the day and long-acting Lantus at night. His most recent A1C was 6.1%.
This proactive approach to injections follows Cutler off the field as well. When he’s at a restaurant, the Humalog pen appears as soon as the food is served. He says, “I’m really not embarrassed about it, and I know that many people are private about taking an injection and will excuse themselves to go the restroom. I inject right at the table. It’s a disease that I’ve got. It isn’t my fault, and I deal with it the best I can.”
While leading the Chicago Bears to the NFC Championship game against Green Bay last season, Cutler was the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL. After getting tackled before the end of the first half, he tore a ligament in his left knee. He tried to start the third quarter, but was pulled out of the game. As this took place on the field, blogs and sports talk show hosts who didn’t know about his injury started in about his lack of “toughness” and “commitment to being a team leader.” And soon the words, “Well, he is a diabetic,” followed. Cutler ignored all of it. “They just don’t know about the disease,” he says of critics who throw the D-word at him. “When they use diabetes as the reason for a bad game, I can say I’ve played more good games than bad ones with diabetes.”
Right now, when not looking for an open receiver downfield, Cutler’s eyes are on the most recent test results. In both venues, things seem to be working just fine.