Former Auburn All-SEC offensive lineman Kendall Simmons, a No. 1 draft choice in 2002, played eight seasons in the NFL and won two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Kendall and his wife, Celesta, live in Auburn with their four children.
In 2003, before his second NFL season, Simmons was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He is a patient ambassador for Novo Nordisk, a diabetes care company.
I was working out twice a day in Auburn, getting ready for two-a-days with the Steelers. I lost 20 pounds in one day. The next day, I got it back up, and I lost 13 pounds that day. In two and a half weeks, by the time I left Auburn and they admitted me into the hospital, I'd lost 45 pounds. The biggest part that scared me more than anything, when I left Auburn and drove to Pittsburgh, I didn't realize what I was doing during the process.
By the time I got there, I looked really bad. Dark circles under my eyes. Our trainer, John Norwig, asked, 'Kendall, what's wrong with you?' I said, 'I don't feel well. I don't know what it is. I think I'm just tired from pushing myself a little too hard.' He said, 'Just go see the team doctor.'
So I went to him. Sat on the table. It was late at night. He said, 'Let's take a quick blood sample. See what's going on.' I told him about the symptoms I had developed. After taking a blood sample, he quietly left the room. Dr. Yates came back and said, 'We need to get you to the emergency room.' I said, 'Okay, what's the issue?' He said, 'I think you have diabetes.' I had just turned 23 years old earlier in March. I remember asking, 'What is diabetes?'
The doctor told me if I would have been a smaller, skill-position guy, I might have gone into a diabetic coma. My blood sugar went from normal range (90-100) and reached almost 1,100. John Norwig called my wife and she drove up the next day. When she arrived, I finally realized I could not see. She was an inch from my face, and I said, 'I can't see you.' I lost my vision for a week. That was scary.
The only thing I wanted to accept was: 'You tell me what I need to do, where I need to keep my numbers in range so I can play.' Once I returned to the field, I didn't realize the influence I had on the diabetic community in Pittsburgh. Especially the young kids trying to find their place. I had an 8-year-old kid who sent me a letter. It said, 'Mr. Simmons, I have the same number as you, play the same position, and I was just diagnosed. You've been doing this for a year or two now. So it's showing me that I can do anything.'
When he told me that, it jumpstarted from there. My wife and I started going to the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) galas in Pittsburgh. The biggest influence for me was when I went to Capitol Hill during what is called Children's Congress. There were between 100-200 Type 1 JRDF Ambassadors from across the U.S., walking the halls of D.C., advocating for more research. Having an opportunity to be a part of that was very special to me.
A whole new world was opened up to me. It started snowballing after that.
What really pushes me to manage my diabetes are the people I'm around. After my football career, I didn't see a reason for me to be 300 pounds anymore, especially if you're trying to make a positive impression on kids or anyone living with diabetes. If I want to show them that you can do better, you have to display that lifestyle.
Living with this disease has really held me accountable. Being a speaker, people watch you whether you know it or not. For me, working out every day helps me de-stress, and keeps my body going, which also manages my diabetes on top of it. So there are a lot of benefits to it. When I talk to people who have recently been diagnosed with diabetes, I tell them the first year, year and a half, is going to be rough. Your body has to physically adjust to the shock that it's going through. You're not going to understand why things are happening. So be patient.
The one thing I have a hard time with is the miseducation about type 1 and type 2. They're two totally different things. Type 2 is genetic, and it has a lot to do with your physical lifestyle, what you eat, and activity. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease. It's like catching a bad cold. I can work out as much as I want but it's not going to change my diabetes. If I don't take insulin, I will not be alive.
Support is one of the most important factors to successfully manage your diabetes. People think diabetes isn't hard to deal with. If I don't manage it correctly on a daily basis, I'm slowly killing myself.
If you have family support and you have monetary support, then why not take care of yourself? Over the years, I have learned that so many things can disrupt your daily management. If you have all the necessary resources, at the end of the day, you can't blame anybody but yourself when things go wrong.
Your family needs to understand, 'We do not have it. They have it.' Try to put yourself in that person's position and understand. Don't be the one pointing the finger all the time. Because they probably get that enough at the doctor's. We need support. We understand what we need to do. We just get tired of doing it, most of the time.
As a person living with diabetes, we often retreat to our own little world. You're not helping yourself if you don't talk about it and ask for help. Do whatever you need to do to learn about your condition. You're going to ultimately fail if you don't.
I tell people all the time. You have to make diabetes conform to your lifestyle. You don't conform to it. I'm going to ride my bike. I'm going to go to my kids' soccer games. I'm going to go swimming. I will climb to the top of this complex if I feel like it, and my diabetes will have to follow.
I have the same routine I go through. I check it. I do what I need to do to eat, and I keep moving. Unless I have a really bad low or high, I don't worry about it during the day because it has to follow everything else I do.
My insulin pump, my insulin strips, whatever it may be related to diabetes, has to follow me. I don't live by its rules.