Kendall Simmons may not be tackling defensive players on the football field anymore, but he’s tackling a different beast – type 1 diabetes.
After leaving Auburn in 2002, he was drafted as the 30th pick in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was during his off-time between his rookie and sophomore seasons that was the real game-changer for Simmons and his family. He was diagnosed with diabetes.
At first, Simmons was misdiagnosed as a type 2 diabetic, told that his body still produced insulin, but one of two things was happening. Either the insulin wasn’t getting to the right place or his body wasn’t making enough. During his second year, Simmons knew something was still off. He could tell by the way he felt and how his body was responding that there was something more than just diabetes.
In his second year, he was accurately diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which means his body wasn’t making any insulin, something needed to stabilize the body’s blood sugar levels. Without insulin, a person will die. Simmons learned his diabetes is most commonly referred to as type 1.5 or LADA – Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adulthood. It’s treated the same as type 1 diabetes.
Type 1 and LADA are both autoimmune forms of diabetes, meaning Simmons did nothing to cause diabetes or spur its onset. Type 1 diabetics manage their blood sugar levels through diet, insulin injections and a rigorous routine of checking the body’s blood sugar through a finger stick multiple times a day. If the level drops too low or rises too high for an extended period of time, a person can go into a coma or even die. Many things beyond food affect the body’s blood sugar levels, including exercise and adrenaline – two things Simmons dealt with daily.
Simmons knew he needed to learn fast how to gain control of his blood sugar numbers if he wanted to be successful in his professional football career.
“I wasn’t going to use diabetes as an excuse for missing a block or use (my blood sugar) being high and not really being able to focus as an excuse for missing an assignment,” he said. “But you have to mentally tell yourself ‘I can do this.’”
Simmons, a self motivator, said he never wanted to be that guy that made that crucial error during a game, especially not because of diabetes. In 2005, Simmons started every game, helping to lead his team to the Super Bowl. That year, he said, was his best for several reasons.
“The year before I was so determined to get my diabetes under control,” Simmons said. “My average (blood sugar) was around 130. I felt like that’s the strongest and best shape I’ve been in my entire life.”
Simmons said his doctor explained that any time his blood sugar is above 180 mg/dL, his body is working overtime – like working with one arm tied behind his back.
“In professional sports, that’s a disadvantage,” he said. “No matter how good you are, your body just won’t perform. Once I figured that out, I would always fight to stay below 180.”
Since retiring from the NFL, Simmons, his wife and three daughters moved back to Auburn.
“Auburn to me, is home,” he said. “There’s just something about this place that I am so comfortable with.”
Even from his high school visits before signing with Auburn, he said he felt like he fit.
“Even being here now… I feel like I fit in like everybody else,” he said. “I get to go out and do my daily thing, raise my family and be part of the community.”
Simmons said once people feel that, they understand why Auburn is such a great place to be.
“This is where I’m going to be,” he said. “I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
Since returning to Auburn three years ago, Simmons has co-hosted an annual golf tournament called “Swing for Diabetes” along with former professional golfer and Auburn alumnus Diana Ramage. Ramage played at Auburn and after graduating in 2005, joined the LPGA Tour. Ramage is also a type 1 diabetic, diagnosed at age 15.
Simmons and Ramage met while rehabilitating injuries from their respective sports. They realized their bond when the two shared a low blood sugar at the same time. Through their friendship, the idea for the golf tournament was born. All the proceeds raised go to the East Alabama Medical Center’s Diabetes and Nutrition Center.
The money stays in the area to help with costs for those who can’t afford it, Simmons said. Last year, the tournament – hosted at the Moore’s Mill Country Club – raised more than $20,000. With the help of Simmons’ wife, Celesta, this year will be even bigger.
“She’s the detail-oriented one,” Simmons said. “I think we’re going to try to expand it next year to raise awareness and bring even more money into the area.”
In 2011, Simmons was hired by Novo-Nordisk, a diabetes healthcare company. He now travels around the country sharing diabetes awareness, research and advocacy. He’s making a new name for himself in a whole new arena. Through sharing his personal diabetes journey with the world, Simmons has been able to make an impact on others affected by type 1 diabetes. But if you ask him, he’s the one being impacted.
He recently attended the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s Children’s Congress where children living with type 1 gather from all 50 states and the District of Columbia to meet with members of Congress. The children are able to show first-hand what life with type 1 diabetes is like and share with elected leaders why research for diabetes and its complications is so vital.
“I was involved with JDRF in Pittsburgh and was asked to come,” he said. “That was one of the best events I’ve ever been to. Just being involved and talking to those kids, you see those people are really trying to help and make a difference.”
This past summer, Simmons and his daughters attended a national conference in Orlando at Walt Disney World called Children With Diabetes Friends For Life – something Simmons is grateful he attended.
“That was a life-changing experience for me,” he said. “It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. You see all these kids with insulin pumps on walking around, from small children to adults. I took my girls and they learned a lot about what daddy goes through.
“They saw kids doing the same thing I do,” he said. “I was able to talk to parents and hear their fears and frustrations. But when you open up and share, it spreads like wild fire.”
While Simmons gains strength from being around others with diabetes, he said he still has fears like many others with diabetes – fear of going blind or being on kidney dialysis, but he knows the decisions he makes today will affect his life tomorrow.
“Diabetes taught me more discipline than sports ever did,” he said. “You learn how much you love yourself because you have to manage it. No one can do it for you. I don’t want my kids to have to take care of me later because I didn’t use the resources I had around me.
“I try not to use (diabetes) as an excuse because that’s an easy way out,” he said. “I just told myself I could do it. I still do.”
As an advocate for diabetes, Simmons wants others to know he’s just like them.
“I have fears about diabetes, and I have my hang ups and I have my days where I don’t want to be diabetic,” he said. “But once people figure out who we are, diabetes is just part of that.”
Victoria Cumbow is a 2008 Auburn graduate, currently working as a journalist for The Huntsville Times. She has been a type 1 diabetic for more than 18 years, having been diagnosed at the age of 11. She is actively involved in her local diabetes community and across North Alabama. Victoria is an active member in the Diabetes Online Community and regularly blogs about her life as a young professional living with type 1 diabetes at Dia-Beat-This, which can be found at victoriacumbow.com. Victoria volunteers with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in Huntsville and serves as Co-chair of the Hot Shots committee, a networking and social group in North Alabama that provides education and support to type 1 families through various events. For more on Victoria, diabetes advocacy and Auburn obsessions, follow her on Twitter @victoriacumbow.
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