'I wouldn't change it for the world': Ravens TE Mark Andrews not slowed by Type 1 diabetes in breakout season
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Every time Mark Andrews jogs off the field between possessions in a game, he slips off his receiving gloves and pricks his finger. Then he does it again. And again. And maybe one more time, just to be sure.
While his teammates are sipping Gatorade and reviewing film, the Baltimore Ravens tight end has an additional responsibility. As the rare Type 1 diabetic in the NFL, Andrews pricks his fingers approximately 30 times over the course of game to monitor his blood sugar levels and make sure he's not too high or too low, striking a careful balance that will allow him to play at his best.
"It’s one of those things where I’m at the stage that this is my job, so I can’t let (diabetes) affect it," he told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. "And I haven’t."
Andrews, 23, has become one of the league's most reliable tight ends and the favorite target of MVP hopeful Lamar Jackson. He leads the team in catches (36) and receiving yards (449) and is tied for the team lead in touchdowns (3) as the Ravens prepare to host the undefeated New England Patriots on Sunday night — the team's first game in November, which is National Diabetes Month.
Andrews has reached those professional heights while also managing Type 1, the autoimmune disease that prevents his pancreas from producing insulin — unlike Type 2 diabetes, in which the body produces too little insulin or doesn't process it effectively.
"He handles it really well," fellow tight end Hayden Hurst said. "He has a system set up and he kind of follows things pretty closely. He does a really good job with it."
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The American Diabetes Association estimates that 1.25 million Americans have Type 1 diabetes, but it is extremely rare among NFL players. While retired quarterback Jay Cutler, longtime Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Kendall Simmons and a handful of others played with Type 1, Andrews is believed to be the only active NFL player with the disease, which has no known cure.
Andrews has dealt with diabetes for the majority of his life. He was 9 years old when he received his diagnosis. His parents, Paul and Martha, were worried that their youngest child was repeatedly subbing out of youth soccer games to use the bathroom, so they took him in for a check up.
"It was the first time I’d ever seen my parents break down and cry," Andrews said. "I knew at that point that something serious was going on in my life."
Andrews said his parents were a bit wary, at first, about their son playing sports — at least right away. But he loved soccer, and his team had a big tournament coming up the weekend after his diagnosis. So, despite their nervousness, they let Andrews play. And he proceeded to score three or four goals in his return to the field — proving to himself that he could still compete, and showing his parents that he was going to be alright.
Football didn't become Andrews' focus until high school, when he was a lanky wide receiver in a suburb of Phoenix, carrying a drawstring "diabetes bag" filled with snacks and other supplies that help him check and maintain his blood sugar levels during every game.
Andrews still carries one of those drawstring bags with him now, as a second-year player with the Ravens, though managing his blood sugar has gotten a bit easier thanks to technological advances. He wears a continuous glucose monitor that gives him real-time information on his phone about his blood sugar levels — and shares it automatically through an app with family members, his agent and Ravens head trainer Ron Medlin.
"I’m always checking this thing before the games and making sure that my numbers are flat and steady and ready to go," said Andrews, who added he prefers to prick his fingers during games for convenience and immediacy.
The 6-foot-5, 256-pounder also keeps a relatively strict diet, especially leading up to games, to keep his blood sugar from fluctuating. He has four eggs before every game, and two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — one the day he plays, and one the night before. ("A lot of peanut butter, not a lot of jelly," he said, noting peanut butter's value as a complex carb.)
During games, and while at practice, the training staff fills separate bottles for Andrews with Gatorade Zero — which has no sugar or carbs, and therefore doesn't affect his blood sugar levels. If those levels get too low at any point, he'll eat a pack or two of fruit snacks for a quick jolt. If they get too high, which is rare, he'll have to reconnect his insulin pump.
"He's got to manage all of that while he’s still playing football," said Dr. Robert Gabbay, chief medical officer at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. "And the margin of error is not great. If he gets too low, his muscles won’t work as well. ... Too high, he can get dehydrated. And physical performance can be affected, as well.
“It’s sort of an added thing that he has to do and juggle that other people don’t."
Andrews views diabetes as a complicating factor, but not a limiting one. And he's gone out of his way to become a visible advocate and support system for others with the disease — particularly children, and their parents.
He doesn't want any high-school football player with Type 1 to wonder if they can make it to the NFL, or any college coach to be concerned about recruiting a player with diabetes.
"I tell this to everybody: Diabetes is incredibly difficult, but I wouldn’t change it for the world," Andrews said. "I’ve had people tell me I can’t do things and doubt me, whatever it may be, because of my diabetes. So I’ve used it to kind of fuel me and just shape who I am as a person.
"It’s why I’m at where I’m at, and why I’m playing the way I am.”
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
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