Beta Cell #014: Will Pericak and Jordan Morris Talk T1D as Professional Athletes in Seattle Transcript

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Craig: This is Beta Cell, a show about people living with type 1 diabetes. I'm Craig Stubing.

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This is the final episode of a four-part T1D Looks Like Me series that Beta Cell was doing in partnership with JDRF for National Diabetes Awareness Month. If you're new to Beta Cell, and you've missed the last three episodes of this series, you can find them all at betacellpodcast.com or wherever you subscribed the podcast. In each episode we've explore a new theme with folks on some of the new challenges that come along with type 1 diabetes.

This week, we talked to two professional athletes in Seattle living with type 1. First, we have Will Pericak, who was diagnosed at 15 years old, when he was a freshman in high school. He played football at the University of Colorado, and now he's 26 and the center for the Seattle Seahawks. The unpredictability of football leads to a lot of difficulties with managing your blood sugar, which Will discusses in the first half of this episode.

You have an older brother who had type 1 before you did, right?

Will: Absolutely, yes. My brother, Thomas, he was diagnosed when he was seven. He's four years older than me, so I kind of grew up with it. As a young kid, I never knew anything other than having a diabetic in the family.

Craig: When you were diagnosed was there ever a fear that you wouldn't be able to play football at the next level or even on the same level you were playing?

Will: My brother actually got scared out of playing football because of his diabetes. I don't if it was my parents, or the doctors or whatever told him that it might be a little risky to play football and be a diabetic. I think that's what kept him from playing football. He played basketball in high school. I saw him do well at being able to manage his diabetes throughout that. For me, I knew it wasn't going to be something to hold me back. I knew I wasn't going to let it. Even if the doctor said, "Don't play football." I was going to say, "I'm going to do what I want. I'm going to play." For me, I was never going to let diabetes hold me back from doing something that I wanted to do.

Craig: What challenges did having type 1 bring in addition to just practicing football?

Will: It's an earth-shaking discovery when you have diabetes and having to change your whole lifestyle. For me, I was actually very fortunate to have my brother being a diabetic because I grew up in a diabetic household, so I knew the ins and outs of testing and giving yourself shots and managing the low blood sugar, high-blood sugar and all that. For me, I was very fortunate in that it wasn't life-changing, life-shattering. It was just another thing that I had to control and be in my routine. Actually, the first thing I noticed about being a diabetic was, when I first got diagnosed, I was in the weight room here trying to get big so I could be a better football player. Lifting a lot of weights, whereas I just kept getting weaker and weaker and I couldn't gain any weight. I got diagnosed let's on a Friday, actually, it was a Friday, and I started taking insulin that night, that day. I was about 185 lbs., the next Monday when I got back on the scale, I had gained about 20 lbs. I was over 200 lbs., and I was like, "That was easy."

Craig: That same exact thing happened to me when I was diagnosed. I don't know how much of it was water weight, how much of it was muscle, but I remember my mum just being shock at gaining 20 lbs. in two days.

Will: I felt so much better. At first, I was like, "This is going to be hard to get big and strong." I see why people struggle. Then, I started taking insulin and it's like, I felt so much better. I felt so much stronger, being able to hold weight and actually play at a better level. Actually, I think that first season, I was on the pump. Football and the pump is a little tricky because the physicalness where you're in hand to hand combat with somebody tackling, trying to hit somebody as hard as you can, every player on the game. In high school, I was playing both ways. I was playing all the snaps of offense and all the snaps of defense.

What ended up happening with me is, my sight would get ripped out. Then I'd be like, "Oh, crap. I'm out of insulin." I always had syringes as a back-up, but then that's tricky. The first season was definitely one of the hardest season to get it under control because I was experimenting with a pump and taking it off during the game, and then putting it on at half-time, see where I'm at, give myself a little bit of insulin and then by the end of the game, I was ripped out, so I had to go back to shots. It was kind of a cluster but I was able to work through it and kind of figure out where I need to be going to games, what blood-sugar level, what the adrenaline and everything did to my blood-sugar, and it still is kind of a guessing game every game because certain things affect in different ways. But I kind of have a routine and it started out that first season. It was hard to figure out, but now I kind of have it down.

Craig: With some sports like long-distance running, you're going at a pace that you know for a certain amount of time, even if there's slight differences, it's not huge, but in football, you could, if you're playing defense and the other team is getting first center and first down, you could be out there three times as long as you thought you were going to be. How do you anticipate those changes while trying to manage your blood-sugar?

Will: It's incredibly difficult because of the unpredictability of football. Fast forward to college, when it was a little bit more predictable, but I had to be that much more in control. My first couple of years, I was still honey-mooning, so it wasn't the hardest to control, because I still had a little bit of insulin that I was producing, so as much as I thought I was doing a good job, I really wasn’t, but once I got into college, I wasn't producing any insulin, so it was all up to me. That's when I really had to dial-it in. I was a defense liner in college, so some games you would be out-there for 50 snaps. In other games, you might only have 40 to 50 snaps. The difference, it can be huge. When you go out-there, you're giving all your effort. You give a 100%, you can't take a play off and coast. These snaps are full-speed snaps. You kind of have to test your way through it. Basically, after each series, I would come off, then I would test my blood-sugar, see where I'm at, and based on what the blood-sugar was at, if I started going down, I would maybe drink a little bit of Gatorade on the side-line. If it was normal, to a little bit high, I'd be drinking water and at half-time I would go adjust, if it was a little higher, I might take a little bit of insulin. With exercise, you become much more sensitive in that sense, so I wouldn't be taking very much. I would still be able to come down pretty quickly, just by taking a few units of insulin. It's really kind of a cat and mouse game where you're always adjusting.

Craig: What do you attribute the fact that you have had such good control while being a professional athlete?

Will: I think that the interesting thing for me. It kind of boils down to an attitude. I have a positive attitude about it, because as a diabetic, you know, adversity in life, and in general, diabetes is just another step, another challenge that you're going to have to overcome to achieve your goals. For me, I was never going to let diabetes tell me that I couldn't do something, and I wasn't going to let it keep me from achieving what I wanted to achieve. Whether it was playing division in college football or playing in the NFL. I wasn’t going to let diabetes control what I wanted to accomplish. That's really the message and the attitude I've always had is it may be another step, it may be another 10 steps, it may be another challenge that I'm going to have to overcome to achieve my goal, but it's not going to hold me back. I'm never going to let it hold me back.

Craig: Do you think your teammates look at you differently, knowing you have type 1 diabetes?

Will: Actually, there's a couple of funny stories with being a diabetic in a football locker room. Going back to college, after a big work-out, after a lift and a run and come back in the locker room and we had some protein shakes, we had a drink. I had to take a shot for them. Every year, you get a new class in there, so there's a bunch of kids who don't know that I'm a diabetic. I'm sitting at my locker after a work-out, with my shirt off and I'm taking insulin and this one kid says, "Jeez, they're just out in the open about it. They don't give a crap. They're doing steroids out in the open." I think that's one of the funniest things that has happened, is people think in a locker-room, if you're injecting something into your belly, their first thought goes to, "Man, he's on the juice." Which is hilarious for me, because then I play it out, "You want some?"

Craig: Anyone ever takes you up on it?

Will: No one ever did. I think it's funny, no one ever did. I have offered a bunch like, "You want some? I can get you so." None of them have been like, "Yes." They are like, "No, thanks." Really, it's a conversation starter. They're like, "Jeez, what is that?" I say, "I'm a type 1 diabetic." And they say, "My family, or members of my family got it." Or "X, Y, Z" It kind of opens up their eyes. The players who I'm closest too, in the position group. Let's say when I was in college, defense, now in the NFL's offense appointment, those guys know that I am a diabetic and if I start acting funny. Let's say I'm a little bit for grouchy or something is just a little off. I'm not there. I'm not responding really quickly. They might be like, "Hey, Will, you might need to go get something some Gatorade. You're acting a little low. You're acting a little grouchy." For most of my teammates, they shouldn't know that I have diabetes because it's not really affecting how I play and I'm still playing at a certain level where I'm playing at the best of my abilities. With an autoimmune disease where some people may not-- The teammates, on the other side of the ball who I never really interact with might never even know I have diabetes, but they know that I am a player that I am and I can perform in an elite level.

Craig: Has your type 1 become easier to manage over time or harder now that you're in the NFL?

Will: It's become easier and it's actually probably made me a better football player and there's two ways I think about that is all the exercise that football requires whether it's the lifts, the running, the practices, the games, has kept me in really good shape where I am very sensitive to insulin. I know if I take a certain amount of insulin, I'm going to be able to stay in a certain range.

On the other side, I think it's actually made me a better football player where I'm more in tune with what I need to eat, so I'm able to perform certain way for practice games and knowing that I can't just go eat chocolate shake whenever I want or because I am alignment I could eat pretty much whatever I want. I just be able to take the right amount of insulin for it and it's actually probably helped me continue to be able to stay strong throughout a long season and be able to maintain my weight throughout the season, so really it's kind of works both ways where diabetes helps me and my football helps my diabetes.

Craig: If you could tell your teammates what it's like having type 1 diabetes while playing on the team, how would you describe it to them?

Will: I would say that just like football is what I do, it's not who I am. Diabetes is what I have but it's not who I am. I am able to manage playing professional football and diabetes while being held to a very high standard but really it is just part of who I am.

Craig: For the second half of the episode. We talked to Jordan Morris. He's a 21-year-old forward for the Seattle Sounders soccer team and he was already playing soccer when he was diagnosed at nine years old. He talks about what he does to keep his blood sugars in range during games, his T1D tattoo on his arm and how he tries to be an inspiration for kids with type 1.

Jordan: My name is Jordan Morris. I play for the Seattle Sounders, the soccer team in Seattle and I'm a type 1 diabetic.

Craig: How long have you been playing soccer?

Jordan: I've been playing soccer since before I can remember. I think ever since I could kick a ball, I was playing soccer.

Craig: After you are diagnosed when you you talk to your doctors and they at some point come up that you play soccer, were they worried at all about your ability to play while managing your blood sugars?

Jordan: I didn't know this at the time I left the room. I was pretty upset obviously. My mom wanted to ask a few questions of the doctor and she said that the first question she asked was, "Can he still play sports?" and the doctor said the more the better. That was a relief to my mom and obviously relief to me. They thought and obviously still think that playing sports it helps in your diabetes management just being active like and hearing those words made my mom and I pretty happy.

Craig: Then when you started playing again, what was it like at nine years old managing your blood sugars while playing? Was it really difficult?

Jordan: It was tough for sure just because it was obviously all new and my dad had to come to every single-- He had a long day at work and he had to come to every single training session with me to make sure I was okay and I'd have to go over three or four times during practice and check my blood sugar and kids were looking at me weird. They didn't know what was going on and I'd have to shove Skittles in my mouth in the middle of practice and it was frustrating because obviously I just want to be a normal kid and be on the field with everyone else and there were some times where I had to take 5, 10 minutes off when I had a low blood sugar just to let it rise back up and so at first it was really frustrating to me just because it was taking away from my ability to be on the field of my ability to really feel like I was enjoying the sport and playing to my fullest ability.

Craig: Was there ever a point where you were worried that type 1 could impact your ability to play in a professional level?

Jordan: My mom told me this about a year ago. She said when I was 14 or 15, I wasn't anything special in soccer. I was struggling a little bit I think with my diabetes and my dad was worried. He's like, "I really don't think there's any way he's even going to be able to play soccer in college." I don't know something switched in my head and I was like, "I'm going to take really good care of this. I'm going to take advantage of all these new technologies and I'm going to work really really hard to try and play professional soccer", but I thought it was just interesting that I guess me at that time and my dad at that time really thought that this was going to hold me back.

Craig: Being within 80 and 120 wasn't your number one priority.

Jordan: Yes, I think maybe a little bit and I was still a kid and I wanted to be doing so many other things than taking care of my diabetes. It was frustrating to me and I think that led to just not great-- I mean, I've always took pretty good care of my diabetes, but I think in that time I was new on the pump things were were changing and I was trying to learn different techniques of taking care of this disease, and I was just obviously I wasn't doing great in soccer at that time and things were just kind of piling up and I was like, "This is really frustrating." I think just a combination of all that and then when I was 16-17, I set my mind on, I wanted to go to Stanford and I wanted to play professional soccer and what I needed to do first was take care of my diabetes, because if I didn't do that, then I don't think any of that stuff what was possible. I just set my mind on that and went from there.

Craig: Do you feel like diabetes holds you back at all now?

Jordan: I don't and honestly, I don't know if I would be a different player how my life would be different if I didn't get diabetes, but honestly, it's so tough and it can be annoying at times but it's made me into the person that I am today and I don't know if I didn't have diabetes if I would be where I am because at such a young age, I was forced to be responsible, forced to take care of this disease and was forced into a role that I might not have been forced into until I was a little bit older.

I learned these skills at a younger age than I might have and I think that pushed me to to be successful and I wanted to try and prove the stigma wrong. It gave me a lot of inspiration to try and accomplish my goals in spite of this disease. I don't know if I didn't have this disease if I would be in the same place and then currently I feel like I have it under pretty good control. I don't think it necessarily holds me back in any way.

Craig: At the time were you on shots or we have ever on a pump?

Jordan: I was on shots for the first five years. I got a pump when I was 14, so at first, I was on shots.

Craig: Are you still on the pump now?

Jordan: Yes.

Craig: How does that work when you play a game? Do you keep it on?

Jordan: No, I take the pump off when I play which I think is the toughest thing to deal with while I'm playing is I struggle with high blood sugar's after games because you take your pump off and so there's no insulin in your system for that hour and a half two hours when you're playing until your blood sugar, obviously, there's no insulin tends to rise a little bit. For me, my biggest challenge over the last few years and what I'm still working on is trying to find the right amount of insulin and I have to put in my body during the game to make sure that after the game obviously my blood sugar isn't too high and to make sure during the game by blood sugar doesn't go too low. It's kind of a trial and error thing to find the right balance.

Craig: Do you feel like you're still figuring that out?

Jordan: I think that's a tough part with diabetes is every day brings its own surprises. It's very unpredictable and leading up to a game for some reason all of a sudden my blood sugar is really high and I have no idea why and so there's just this unpredictability to it that it is tough but I think there's like a method that I found that works a lot of the time. It won't work all the time because obviously it's unpredictable but through this trial and error that I've been going through and I talked with my dad a lot about it. We've tried eating different things before games and seeing what works and so we found a kind of a system that we feel works a decent amount of the time.

Craig: I believe I read that your dad is actually the doctor for the Seattle Sounders.

Jordan: Yes, yes, he is. He's actually in the locker room with me before-- He doesn't travel to away games but before the home games, he's in the locker room, which is awesome, because he obviously knows me and knows my diabetes really well, so it's great to have another voice that you can bounce ideas off of a little bit.

Craig: Are you on a continuous glucose monitor?

Jordan: I am. I wear a Dexcom and I kind of wear it on and off.

Craig: How has that changed how you prepare for games or even play games? Are you staring at it all the time?

Jordan: It's really cool actually because all these new technologies coming out only make living with diabetes easier. For me, I didn't want another thing connected to my body. I thought that that would be a little bit annoying, but it's not too invasive. I tried it out and for me what's cool is it reads to my phone every five minutes. Before games, what's tough for me is I have to be constantly checking my blood sugar like five or six times in the hour leading up to the game, I'm checking my blood sugar to make sure it's in the right place because obviously, you want your blood sugar to be normal going in the game, because if it's not, it affects your play. It's a little bit tough to always be going to the sideline or sitting your locker checking your blood sugar five, six times in the hour leading up.

What the CGM allows me to do is it reads on my phone every five minutes and what's cool is it shows where your blood sugar is trending to. If it's trending up, you know you have to give yourself more insulin or if it's trading down, you might have to eat. I eat fruit snack to bring my blood sugar back up. What the normal checking on your blood sugar doesn't tell you is where it's trending. I think the continuous glucose monitor has really helped me in that sense. I know where my blood sugar is headed rather than just what my blood sugar is.

Craig: You're thinking about blood sugars before the game and preparation making sure you're in range so you can perform optimally. Then after the game, you're managing highs that you might have from not having insulin, but between those whistles, how much are you thinking about your blood sugars?

Jordan: Every once in a while it comes up and that's the tough part. Honestly, I haven't had to deal too much with lows during the game. I remember one time this year, I had to run to the sideline and I had a low blood sugar. I did grab some free snacks. In the middle of the game, I just ran over my trainer, I gave my trainer a signal and he brought them out and I took them on the field.

What's nice is obviously there's a half time in soccer. 45 minutes into the game, you get a break and you get to check your blood sugar and redo the whole process of figuring out how much insulin you want to give yourself. For those 45 minute periods, I really just try and push the diabetes out of my head. It can be tough sometimes, but push out my head and really just focus on playing soccer.

Craig: This game where you went low that you mentioned, did you feel it coming on during the game and were you trying to think, at what point can I get over to the bench to get something?

Jordan: Exactly. I felt it coming on, I felt the shakiness and all that stuff. I honestly had to wait a few minutes to go to the sideline because with soccer, obviously, there's not a lot of stoppage. For those two, three minutes where I needed to go to the sideline but I really couldn't, because play was still going on. It was tough and then I had to find the right time where it wouldn't affect my team for me to be off the field for 30 seconds or 45 seconds. That was tough too. Luckily, that doesn't happen very often. In that situation, it was a little tough.

Craig: How much do your teammates know about your type 1?

Jordan: They know a decent amount. I keep it pretty low key and don't really talk about it too much because I don't want it to be what defines me or anything like that. They notice when I check my blood sugar. I'll never approach them and talk to them about it. If they ever have any questions or anything like that, I answer them and they're all great about it.

Craig: You don't want to make it a big deal but you have a pretty big prominent type 1 tattoo on your forearm?

Jordan: Yes.

Craig: Why did you decide to get that as opposed to just wearing a bracelet?

Jordan: Honestly I hated my bracelet. I never wore it. When I came home from my Freshman Year Of College for winter break and my mom came up with this idea that she'd seen some kid get a tattoo. She's like, "I think that's a good idea. You never wear your bracelet." For me, I got it for that purpose that first responders, it's the same idea as a bracelet. They'll know I'm a diabetic.

Also for me what's important is trying to be an inspiration for younger kids with diabetes who are aspiring to play professional sports or do anything really that they want to accomplish their dreams. I knew that if I did get a professional soccer, I'd be on TV or stuff like that. Kids watching if they see this tattoo and they don't know necessarily that I have diabetes, maybe I can be a little bit of an inspiration to them. It had two meanings for me.

Craig: Speaking of being an inspiration for kids, how do you do that?

Jordan: I try to every once in a while tweet out something like that, that talks about just not giving up on your dreams. Diabetes can't hold you back, things like that. Whenever people reach out on Twitter, Facebook, I try to respond. If they have questions, things like that, I try my best to respond. Then the main way that I love to interact with kids is meeting with them. I've gone to a couple of schools this year and talked to young diabetics and through family friends, they've had me reach out and give kids calls and just talk to them, hopefully, be a role model to these young kids.

Craig: What's the most surprising thing that's happened with interacting with these newly diagnosed kids?

Jordan: My mom was actually just telling me a story that touched me a little bit. She was talking to a friend and this is actually isn't a kid that I interacted with directly. She was talking to her friend and he was talking to this little girl and brought me up. She hadn't heard of me before. He showed her these videos of me playing soccer and he said that she started crying because she was like, "He has what I have and he's doing this and if he can do this, then I can do what I want to do." I thought that was just so cool that something so little can impact these kids' lives in such a great way and gives me a purpose to my life outside of soccer to try and be that that inspiration.

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Craig: Beta Cells produced, recorded and edited by me, Craig Stubing, and our theme music is by Purple Glitter. JDRF and Beta Cell are curious about what you do to manage your T1D while playing sports. If you have an interesting story about you or your child with T1D, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to social@jdrf.org. This entire T1D Looks Like Me series would not have been possible without Jessica Robinson, Aamna Dosani and Emily Howell. Thank you.

Be sure to subscribe to the Beta Cell on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or the NPR One app to get every new episode delivered automatically to you.

I'm Craig Stubing and this is Beta Cell.