Sweet Success: How Disease Led To Triumph For One Former NFL Leader

When he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, Steelers superstar Kendall Simmons thought his life was over. But it was just beginning

As Kendall Simmons drove the 800 miles to a Pittsburgh training camp to begin his second year as an NFL guard in the summer of 2003, he enjoyed the moment—and the solitude. Sure, he’d been feeling tired and a bit out of sorts lately, but he energized himself by replaying scenes in his head from his triumphant 2002 Rookie of the Year season with the Steelers. It was like an internal highlights reel. But within hours, the 6’3” 315-pound guard found himself fighting for life, flat on his back in an emergency room with a blood sugar count north of 1000. “If I had been a smaller guy, I would have gone into a diabetic coma,” says the Mississippi native, 36. When doctors delivered a diagnosis of diabetes, Simmons was shocked. He was told that his body could make only tiny amounts of insulin, putting him in the gray area between type 1 diabetes, an irreversible auto-immune disease that usually arrives at an early age, and type 2, which generally strikes later and is often brought on by poor lifestyle choices. Without treatment—including daily insulin shots —he was in danger of organ damage, blindness, heart disease, even death. His life would have to change.

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And it did. Simmons dramatically overhauled his diet. He learned how to inject insulin, even on the sidelines during a game. And he continued his star career, starting every game of the 2006 Super Bowl championship season. He felt he was thriving, though he realizes now that he was also on a roller coaster of highs and lows. “Back then, I didn’t understand how adrenaline affected my blood sugar,” he says. “Every second of every play, my diabetes was affecting my play.” In 2010, after brief stints with the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills, he decided to call it quits. “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” he said. “I always told my wife, I’m not going to be one of those guys who chase the dream and hold on too long. it gets to a point where your body says enough is enough.” Simmons thought he would enjoy relaxing with his wife and young kids, maybe pursue a career in coaching. He felt certain his diabetes would improve now that his career was over. But within a year of retirement, the diabetes progressed to full-blown type 1. His body completely stopped making insulin; he would require injections the rest of his life. He was depressed. He was lost. And he was unemployed. Then his agent called: someone from insulin maker Novo Nordisk had seen him on YouTube, talking about his diabetes diagnosis. They wanted him to become a company spokesman, traveling the world to educate people about treatments. Simmons hesitated: he was an introvert, unnerved by the spotlight. His agent persisted. Today, Simmons says, “I absolutely love it.”

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The same disease that threatened his life now gives it meaning and purpose. Simmons appears at about forty diabetes-related events each year, mixing freely with the crowd, sharing stories of victories and setbacks. He visits children in hospitals and schools, transformed by the lives he touches and the courage he sees. “It puts in perspective where your life is, and where it could be,” says. “I never would have chosen this path on my own. God put me on it.” And there’s a more personal benefit: in his four years as a diabetes advocate, Simmons has learned to better manage his own health. “I can’t get up and use my story if I’m eating junk food and not keeping track of my blood sugar. It has been a real blessing to me to learn to take better care of myself.” For other former NFL’ers – as well as regular folks — looking to transition to a new life, Kendall recommends finding a route that leads to personal fulfillment above all else. The trick to that, he says, is the same for anyone on the road he was on, without a clue about which path to take: “Find something that makes you happy,” he says. “You never know where that avenue will lead you.”

Photos: Offensive lineman Kendall Simmons #73 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL at Ford Field on February 5, 2006 in Detroit, Michigan. Credit: Harry How/Getty Images Article photo Credit: Courtesy of Kendall Simmons