When Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive lineman Kendall Simmons won the 2002 Joe Greene Great Performance Award for being the Steelers “Rookie of the Year,” he felt at the top of his game.
Simmons, #73, started in 14 games in that season, weighing in at 315 pounds of mostly muscle that he used to protect his quarterback or block tacklers in all of those games.
But just before training camp for the 2003 season, Simmons started experiencing symptoms that made him feel uneasy on the field: blurry vision, weakness, extreme thirst.
Perhaps the most bizarre symptom of all was a weight loss of nearly 45 pounds, despite Simmons eating and training the same way that he always had.
Just as the football season was about to get underway, a physical exam revealed the cause of these unusual symptoms and Simmons received the shock of a lifetime: he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and started receiving insulin shots immediately.
Off His Game
Like so many people diagnosed with diabetes, Kendall Simmons first went into the denial mode.
“I wanted to just go ahead and keep doing things the way I’d done before,” he explains. “I didn’t want to change my eating, I was embarrassed to take my shots in front of people. I just wanted the whole thing to go away.”
But one thing Kendall did not want was for the football world to see him, after winning “Rookie of the Year,” fall into a sophomore slump. So he went out there and played every game of the 2003 season, even as he was coming to the terms that he was living with a chronic illness and trying to grasp the nuances of how to manage his insulin, eating and work-outs to achieve optimal blood sugar management.
“I was on a rollercoaster ride in terms of my sugar most of that season,” Simmons says. “I might go from 230mg/dl to 50 in the course of a game. The media didn’t know what was going on with me medically and I knew that I wasn’t playing my best. I had to turn it around.”
Making a Plan
Like everyone who is newly diagnosed with diabetes, Simmons needed to put together a support team to help him get his diabetes game together. With the help of his doctor, his trainer, his coach, the owner of the Steelers, and mostly his wife Celesta, Kendall Simmons began to take charge of his diabetes.
Ultimately, Kendall’s attitude, though, was at the center of his change in diabetes attitude.
“I had worked too hard to make it to this point in my NFL career to let something like diabetes get in the way,” he explains.
In the moments though that he did feel a little bit sorry for himself, wife Celesta was there to remind him that he just needed to stay strong. Celesta learned carbohydrate counting and nutrition for diabetes right along with Kendall and started adjusted her cooking to fit with his low-carb meal plan.
Kendall felt most appreciative that Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney looked at his diabetes as just another hurdle, not a handicap in any way. Rooney’s son has diabetes and so he, too, understands the nuances of the disease and how it needs to be managed.
Game Day Routines
Kendall also found an excellent endocrinologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who helped him create a strategy for how to manage his blood sugars during football games.
Kendall, who takes 40 units of Lantus insulin every night, uses a Humalog pen to cover his meals. On days that he’s playing, he prefers to eat a large meal the night before and eat lightly throughout the day—maybe just eating a Power Bar and protein shake before playing.
Kendall tests his blood sugar two to three times in the hours right before the game, tests again during halftime and then right after the game. Ideally, he likes to go out on the field with a blood sugar ranging from 130-160 mg/dl so he doesn’t drop too low. If he needs to take more insulin during half-time, he pulls out his pen.
His trainer has learned the nuances of diabetes management, too, and helps him makes adjustments. His endocrinologist will call him to check in after the game.
“As a lineman, I might have 400 pounds of weight coming up against me at any point during the game,” Simmons explains. “I want to have my blood sugars stay as even as possible so nothing is making me weaker than my opponents.”
Diabetes “Defense” is the Offense
Quickly, Kendall Simmons understood that in the world of diabetes, having a strong defense is the best offense. Kendall’s grandmother died of diabetes-related complications, and Kendall wants to stay at his healthiest possible, for a long time.
Not only does he have his career to think of, but he is also the proud father of a two-year-old daughter and his wife is pregnant with a second baby. “Diabetes runs in both of our families, so I try to be a role model for my daughter,” Simmons says. “We limit her sweets and I show her how I enjoy eating healthy food.”
Dietary Changes the Biggest Challenge
For Simmons, changing his eating habits has been one of the biggest adjustments to living a healthier lifestyle. At 315 pounds, he was used to eating a lot of junk, snacking on chips and Doritos at night, without worrying about it.
“I grew up in the South (Mississippi) and we didn’t think anything of eating greasy food—hamburgers, fried chicken,” he recalls. “Now I’m raising my daughter to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, right from the start.”
To keep his blood sugars even but also maintain the weight he needs to be an offensive lineman, Kendall now relies on more protein shakes in his diet, along with strict carbohydrate counting. When he and his wife go grocery shopping, he reads the labels on everything.
“It’s a real education to realize how much sugar and fat most Americans are eating,” he observes.
Kendall’s diabetes management plan is working out well, both on and off the field. And since he’s found a strategy that works, he’s sticking with it, not even changing his routine when he was a starting player for the Steelers 2006 Super Bowl championship.
“There was a lot of stress involved in the Super Bowl, and stress can make my sugar levels go high, so I tried to stay cool. I told my family that I would see them and celebrate after the game—I tried to make it like a business trip for me,” he explains.
Message to His Fans
Now that Kendall has embraced that fact that living with diabetes is a reality that he must face in order to live well and play well, he wants to get out there and let other people with diabetes know that they can take charge of their diabetes, too. He’s working with the local Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in Pittsburgh, going to schools and speaking to children about diabetes. He gets letters from children with diabetes all of the time, and has even invited his young fans to come to a Steelers game and meet him in the locker room.
“It’s amazing to see these kids, the smiles on their faces. I know they’re looking at me and thinking, ‘if he has diabetes and can do this, I can do anything, too.’”