I used to eat like a normal offensive lineman. Cheeseburgers. Chips. Cereal. The Great Wall of Chocolate from P.F. Chang’s — man, that was my favorite.
But my Kryptonite was king-size Snickers.
When I first came into the league with the Steelers, we would get food bags on the team plane. We called them “goodie bags.” They came with a Subway sandwich, cookies, potato chips and a king-size Snickers. When I got my bag, everything but the Snickers hit the trading block. I’d run around the plane like a kid in the school lunchroom looking to make a deal.
“Whaddaya want for your Snickers?”
“Chips for your Snickers?”
“Cookie for your Snickers?”
By the time I got off the plane, I’d have four or five of them.
It was 2003, and I was coming off a pretty good rookie year. During the offseason before my second season, I had a clavicle resection performed on my right shoulder and my left elbow scoped a month later. Once I was far enough along in the healing process, I was ready to start preparing for two-a-days and training camp. I was about 325 pounds at that point, but I knew I was going to lose some weight before I got to camp.
There were days back when I was playing at Auburn where I’d lose seven or eight pounds in one day — water weight. They’d have me drink half-gallon jugs of Gatorade to rehydrate, and the weight would come back. Some days, I’d lose as many as 10 pounds. But it always evened out.
One day, that summer after my rookie season, I lost 20 pounds in one day. My wife, Celesta, looked at me and said, “I need to do whatever it is you’re doing, because I watch you eat, and I don’t know how you can lose that much weight in one day.” But I was pushing myself hard, trying to avoid a “sophomore slump.” Training camp was coming, and I needed to be ready.
After about two-and-a-half weeks of training, I packed up the truck, kissed Celesta goodbye, left my home in Alabama and made the 13-hour drive to Latrobe, PA for Steelers training camp. Throughout that training, I lost a total of 45 pounds. But the weight wasn’t coming back like it used to. I was fatigued, but I figured it was just the heat wearing me out and all the extra work I was putting in. When I got to camp, I told the doctor what was going on — the fatigue, the weight loss, I was going to the bathroom what seemed like every five minutes — and he took a blood sample.
“We need to get you to an emergency room. Right now.”
“I think you have diabetes.”
I know what you’re thinking: King-size Snickers + Great Wall of Chocolate + more king-size Snickers = Diabetes. Was I really that surprised?
That’s a myth. Eating lots of candy or sugar doesn’t cause diabetes.
Don’t feel bad — I didn’t know anything about diabetes either. But we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s go back to that emergency room …
A normal person’s blood sugar range runs between 80-100. When the doctor ran my blood test, mine was over 1,000. My body wasn’t converting that sugar into energy. That explained the fatigue. So when I was working out in the Alabama sun, I wasn’t burning off the sugars I was eating. I was burning off my body’s reserves. That explained the weight loss.
The doctors told me I was lucky to be as big as I was, because if I had the body of a wide receiver, I would have gone into a diabetic coma. My body would have shut down. They said I was lucky to have even made it through that 13-hour drive feeling the way I did.
But that wasn’t the scariest part.
I woke up one morning in my hospital bed and I couldn’t see. The lights were on and it was morning, but all I could see was darkness.
You ever go into your bedroom at night and turn on the lights, but they don’t work? That’s how I felt. All I could see was just shapes and outlines. Everything was a dark haze, like I had a black sheet over my head.
I was temporarily blind. Another side effect of my diabetes.
It lasted almost five days.
That was the scariest part for me — at 23 years old, waking up and not being able to see.
Through it all, I never doubted that I’d get back out on the football field. It was a question of when, not if. My endocrinologist told me to come see him when I left the hospital so he could get me on a routine — new eating habits, the whole nine — to manage my diabetes. It’s a disease that can ravage your body if you don’t control it, but if you take the proper proactive steps, you can live a normal life with diabetes.
But I didn’t embrace my disease. I didn’t want to change my eating habits. I was basically in denial. I just wanted the whole thing to go away.
So I didn’t go see my endocrinologist. I left the hospital and went straight back to the football field.
My sophomore season, I slumped. I was in and out of the starting lineup because I wasn’t performing. I was barely 300 pounds — well below my playing weight. I didn’t have any of my strength. My blood levels were all over the place, like a rollercoaster. I never really felt normal. I just wasn’t the same player I was my rookie year.
I was embarrassed — about my play, about my disease.
I would have to leave practice sometimes because I would start shaking. My blood sugar levels would get low, so my body would start shaking, sending me a signal. I need glucose. I remember laying on the training table. It was freezing cold, but I was sweating like I was back in the Alabama sun. I was upset because I didn’t understand what was going on inside my body and why I couldn’t play the game the way I had before.
The problem with me was that after I was diagnosed, I felt like an outcast. I used to hide in the bathroom and check my blood sugar, pricking my finger and taking my insulin shots in a bathroom stall because I didn’t want anyone seeing me do it. For almost three years I was running to the bathroom — until finally, one night at dinner, I stood up for my fifth or sixth bathroom run when Celesta looked at me and said, “Sit down. Nobody has to use the bathroom that many times. Everyone here knows you have diabetes, and if they don’t like needles or blood they can look the other way. You can sit here at the table and do it. They will just have to get used to it.”
I got angry with her. That really bothered me. I felt like she didn’t understand what I was going through.
But she was right.
That was a turning point for me. I realized I had to stop hiding. I told myself: It is what it is. You have diabetes. Everybody in the city knows you have diabetes. So why are you trying to hide from it?
I was lucky to have played football in a place where I didn’t have to hide it, either.
Sometimes during practice, I would feel like everyone else on the field was flying around and I was moving in slow motion, like I had cinderblocks on my feet. But I had a teammate, Aaron Smith, whose father had diabetes, and he really helped me more than he’ll ever know. I couldn’t lie to him. I couldn’t fake like I was okay. He’d seen it with his father, who didn’t take care of himself, so he looked out for me. The Steelers training staff had also dealt with a diabetic player before me: Jonathan Hayes. So they knew what to do when I came in the training room shaking and sweating.
Dan Rooney used to walk around the facility a lot, too, and sometimes he’d come downstairs to the training room while I was in there. He dealt with diabetes in his family and he understood how I felt. One time, he said, “Look, we want you to be a successful person first. Do what the doctors tell you to do, and you’ll be alright. The football field will always be out there. But you’ve got to be healthy first.”
That made all the difference for me. Knowing that I didn’t have to go through this by myself — that I had Mr. Rooney and so many others in the Steelers organization behind me — made it easier for me to eventually accept my disease and learn to control it. I honestly don’t think I would have had as long a career as I did if I was drafted by a team with no knowledge of the disease — a team that wasn’t able to support me. A team other than the Steelers.
Diabetes affected every snap of football I played during my second year in the NFL. I should have gone to see my endocrinologist when I first got released from the hospital. I should have taken control of my disease. I should have listened. I should have learned. I should have …
Before my third season, I finally went to see my endocrinologist. He put me on an amazing routine. I learned about nutrition and how the body works. I learned about how my body works.
Every day is different for a person who has diabetes. It’s all trial and error. No two days are the same. I changed my eating habits. I basically became a pharmacist, experimenting with different supplements and foods that would spike my blood sugar levels. For the first time since my diagnosis, I started gaining control over my diabetes. The disease became secondary — just another part of me — and I could focus on what I had to do on the football field instead of guessing how diabetes was going to affect my body and my play.
I had the best training camp of anyone in Steelers camp before that 2004 season. I was in the best shape I had ever been in and I had my blood sugar levels under control.
Two-and-a-half weeks into camp, I blew my knee out. I tore my ACL and missed the entire season.
If I hadn’t taken control of my diabetes when I did, I don’t know if I would have been able to come back from that. My career could have ended right then and there with that ACL tear. But since I had my body right and I could focus on my rehab, when the 2005 season came around, I was ready. And that’s when it all came together for me.
I started all 16 games and all through the playoffs — all the way to a Super Bowl title.
During that Super Bowl season of 2005, I got a letter from a young boy. He was eight or nine years old. The letter said:
“Mr. Simmons: I also play guard and wear number 73. Pittsburgh is my favorite team, and I was just diagnosed with diabetes. You give me hope that I can do whatever I want — just because you are pushing through it and playing.”
The letter came with a package of M&Ms: “These are for you in case you go out on the field and your blood sugar drops low.”
That will forever stick with me. I’ve never met that boy. We’ve never talked personally. But because I pushed through something, and he was battling the same thing, it inspired and motivated him to keep pushing forward.
It reminded me of how I felt when I realized the Steelers organization was behind me and that I didn’t have to go at it alone.
I got a few more letters from kids who said I’d inspired them, and I knew that was God trying to tell me something: You have something more important here. So since then, I’ve tried to lead by example and engage people however I can to educate them about this disease, because I know firsthand how little most people — even some who have diabetes — know about it.
Remember the myth I mentioned? The one about king-size Snickers and the Great Wall of Chocolate being the cause of my diabetes? It’s just that: a myth. But don’t feel bad if that was your first thought. It’s a common misconception. And I myself didn’t know anything about diabetes before I was diagnosed with it.
The truth is that there are two types of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2.
In Type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system destroys the cells that release insulin, the hormone that helps convert sugars to energy for your body to use. It’s caused by a combination of genetics and other unknown factors, though doctors believe that traumatic events — such as having my elbow scoped after my rookie season — can jumpstart the process. But it’s largely hereditary.
In Type 2 diabetes, the body either isn’t making enough insulin or can’t effectively use the insulin it’s creating. This results from a combination of factors as well, one being genetics and the other being a combination of lifestyle factors, such as being overweight, having a poor diet and living a sedentary lifestyle.
I never knew any of this before I was diagnosed. And even after I was diagnosed, I was resistant.
When I was diagnosed, my pancreas — which produces the insulin hormone — was still producing a small amount of insulin. But the year after I retired from the NFL in 2009, it completely shut down and I became full-blown Type 1.
The day I decided to accept my condition and take control of it, everything changed.
Today, I travel around the country educating and motivating people with diabetes — and working with doctors to take a better approach to getting patients to buy into the fact that this disease can be controlled. It starts with learning about your body and about the disease. There’s no substitute for education.
I’ve learned so much from having diabetes. I tell people all the time that it taught me more about mental toughness than anything else I’ve ever dealt with in my life. It’s taught me to eat better and be more healthy. I know it sounds strange, but I’m a better, healthier person because of my diabetes.
I think about those letters a lot. Especially the one that young boy sent me. They told me I had inspired them and motivated them to take control of their diabetes, and not let it limit them, and that I did it just by being an example that you can still achieve your greatest dreams — like winning a Super Bowl — despite this disease. And if I could motivate and inspire a few kids without even trying, imagine what I could do with a little effort.
That’s what keeps me going every day. I lead by example, sharing my story: from trading for king-size Snickers on the team plane, to my diagnosis, to my denial, to my acceptance and taking control of my diabetes.
Being able to share that message and inspire others?
I wouldn’t trade that for anything.