Former Steeler Kendall Simmons’ NFL career helped him manage life with diabetes
January 10, 2017 12:00 AM
Kendall Simmons, a former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman, is now a diabetes spokesman.
Kendall Simmons during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 16, 2006. An offensive lineman, Simmons had to maintain more weight than is healthy for a person with diabetes. He has slimmed down since his playing days.
By David Templeton / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
No one would argue that NFL football poses serious mental and physical challenges for its players.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Kendall Simmons discusses them openly. Just as readily, he will talk about the equally serious challenges of living with diabetes.
He had a successful NFL career, from 2002 until his retirement in 2010, starting 83 of the 84 games he played and earning two Super Bowl rings. But what might stand out among his most notable accomplishments were the 70 games he played, including Super Bowls in 2006 and 2009, with Type 1 diabetes.
While you can retire from football, you can’t retire from Type 1 diabetes.
Drawing on those experiences, Mr. Simmons, 37, formerly of Pine and now living with his wife, Celesta, and their four children in Auburn, Ala., has served five years as a paid national patient ambassador for Novo Nordisk, the Denmark pharmaceutical company that produces insulin and other products to manage the disease.
In a sense, his football career was a proving ground for a life with diabetes.
In 2016, he made more than 25 appearances for Novo Nordisk at diabetes camps, health fairs, children’s hospitals and other events. He discusses his experiences in managing diabetes successfully with the theme that, whether you are a football player, bricklayer or soothsayer, good diabetes management practices are necessary for a healthful existence.
“I’m really introverted and kind of like having my own space, and I almost hide from people,” he said recently. But before an audience, his personality and need for honesty kick in, he said, creating an alter ego. “I try to speak from the heart. Nothing is prepared. Ninety-eight percent of it is me.
“You need compassion when speaking to others, and they may not have the support they need. If it can help them and give them hope, then it’s worth it,” Mr. Simmons said. “I want people to know there was a real person under that helmet.”
“Kendall is one of our most popular ambassadors, and we hear about people talking with him then going to their physician and say they met Kendall and rave about the experience,” said Lisa Centifanti of Novo Nordisk product communications. The corporation, she said, has found it important “to partner with people impacted by the conditions we treat.”
Last year, she said, Mr. Simmons traveled “from Ohio to California to Texas” on behalf of Novo Nordisk to talk about his own experiences with diabetes and how he manages blood-sugar levels.
“People like Kendall, with his name recognition and association with the NFL, help us raise awareness about better management of the conditions we treat, which in Kendall’s case is diabetes,” Ms. Centifanti said. “Diabetes can be widely misunderstood, and hearing stories from Kendall help educate the community.”
On the road again
Mr. Simmons returned to Pittsburgh last month to participate in a Post-Gazette Health Forum on diabetes at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown. He recounted some of his experiences with diabetes as a football player and now as a family man with a new career.
It also provided the opportunity for an update on his health and post-football career.
He now wears a continuous glucose monitor to track blood-sugar readings and maintains an HgA1C level — a three-month blood-glucose average — of 6.3 percent. The normal range is 4 to 6 percent, but his level is well within the 7 percent goal established by the American Diabetes Association.
An admitted “sweetness junkie,” he said his three daughters and one son, ranging in age from 12 to 4, are part of his support team and hide candy from him. “I have to fight myself from putting my hand in the peppermint bowl,” he said.
On average, he bicycles 75 miles a week and does 30 to 45 minutes of cardiovascular workouts on a treadmill and by jumping rope several times a week.
“After bike rides, I need half to three-quarters less insulin,” he said.
Diabetes training camp
Mr. Simmons was the Steelers’ first-round draft choice in 2002 and started 14 games that year. But he arrived for his second training camp in August 2003 nearly in a coma with a blood-glucose level soaring above 1,000 — 10 times the normal range (70 to 100 mg/dL). He was diagnosed with insulin-dependent Type 2 diabetes but that diagnosis later was changed to adult-onset Type 1.
In many ways, successful management of the diseases runs counter to the lifestyle of an offensive lineman.
Diabetes improves with weight loss. But linemen must maintain lots of weight and muscle, and his playing weight was 315 pounds. He’s now 60 pounds lighter at 255 pounds.
There’s also no automatic timeout when your blood sugar runs low or high. Once during an offensive drive against the San Francisco 49ers, he said, his blood sugar fell to 23 mg/dL — one third the normal level and in a range of hypoglycemia that can cause unconsciousness. The drive resulted in a field goal.
On many other occasions, when he reached the sidelines, trainers quickly tested his blood sugar and gave him glucose tablets to swallow or a sugar drink to chug down before returning to the game. Even during timeouts, trainers would rush onto the field to test his blood sugar. His wife, Steelers owner Art Rooney, the team’s head athletic trainer John Norwig and his training staff, Mr. Simmons said, all helped him overcome the many challenges of diabetes during his time in Pittsburgh.
“It was extremely tough, to be honest with you,” he said. “It didn’t bother me during the off-season but the atmosphere of professional athletics, with the surgeries, and blood-sugar levels all over the place, with some games bigger than others, and a lot of time having no energy or strength that was needed, I had to will myself through it.”
Throughout his college and professional career, Mr. Simmons required 14 surgeries to treat injuries, feet to shoulders. Six years after leaving the NFL, he still must ice some of those injuries.
After the Steelers released him in 2009, he played 10 games with the New England Patriots and spent time with the Buffalo Bills, retiring in 2010 despite being cleared to play that year for the Arizona Cardinals. He said his body was worn out.
Mr. Simmons acknowledges he wasn’t the nicest person to be around during his first year away from football. He briefly coached at Auburn University, his alma mater, where he’d graduated in only three years with a degree in graphic design, but he didn’t want the coaching lifestyle.
In retrospect, diabetes had some impact on his career.
“I think diabetes had a little bit to do with it, and my play probably would have been better if I understood diabetes as well as I do now,” he said. “Now I’d be better prepared going into games.”
In 2011, his agent got a call from Novo Nordisk, and Mr. Simmons readily welcomed his new role as a patient ambassador.
“By talking for five minutes, I can give hope to people, and I feel it’s truly best not to hide my flaws,” he said. “People just have different opportunities in life. I had to struggle to get through some stuff, but you make a decision and you have to grow. It helps them out to realize I’m a real person. I’m not speaking to them through a speech but showing them exactly who I am.”
And when he displays the enormous bejeweled Super Bowl ring — about the size of hard-boiled egg cut in half — what you don’t see is the glucose monitor under his clothes. Or the insulin injection marks. Or the vigilance required to monitor the body day in and day out. Or the determination he used as a football player to deal with extraordinary health circumstances few other players had to contend with, and how he must continue using that determination lifelong to keep his diabetes in check.
Or, in the end, how his football career became training camp for life with diabetes.
David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578.
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