By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
It was a few days before the start of training camp in 2003 when Kendall Simmons woke up in a Pittsburgh hospital, hooked to IVs and temporarily blind – with no memory of how he got there.
The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive guard had arrived at the team’s complex not feeling well. The team’s trainer, John Norwig, took one look at him and sent him to the doctor where blood was taken. Simmons was told that his blood sugar was dangerously high and he needed to go immediately to the emergency room. To this day that’s all Simmons remembers.
It had all started a few weeks prior when Simmons was training in preparation for the start of two-a-day practices. He was experiencing fatigue and the constant need to urinate. But even more startling was that he inexplicably lost 45 pounds in just two-and-a-half weeks, including 20 pounds that he lost in a single day.
Simmons was the Steelers’ first-round Draft pick out of Auburn in 2002 and was coming into his second year with high expectations; he was adamant about not succumbing to the “sophomore slump.” Suddenly everything was in flux.
The Mississippi native was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a condition his grandmother, who died at the age of 90 when Simmons was nine years old, also had, but was rarely mentioned.
“We didn’t talk about it,’’ he said. “I looked at it as an older person taking medicine. I remember playing with her insulin bottles and her syringes. In our society, and especially in my family, we didn’t say diabetes, we said sugar. I remember my grandmother eating peppermint, she kept it in every crack in the house. I love peppermint. She ate it to raise her blood sugar. I use it all the time too now. First thing my kids say is, ‘Daddy you have any peppermint?’”
But, it took a while for Simmons to accept his diagnosis.
“I was in denial for about two years,” he said. “It took a while for me to get the hang of it. It didn’t really hit me until that offseason before we went to the Super Bowl in ‘04. That was the worst season of my career. [My endocrinologist] Dr. Rao told me, ‘You have to take the year off.’ That’s one of my major regrets, I probably should have. I probably went back too fast and it put me behind the eight ball. Dr. Rao said, if you want to continue to do your job you have to do everything I tell you. It took me about 18 months to feel normal.
“I went in and out of the starting line-up. I went from being a first-round pick to being bounced around all over the place and everybody wondering, ‘What’s happened to this dude?’”
Fortunately for Simmons he was with a team and ownership that had experience with diabetes. Members of the Rooney family, which owns the Steelers, have also been diagnosed with the disease and a previous player had also had it. A trainer accompanied him to almost every one of his doctors’ appointments and they always carried the supplies needed to treat Simmons both at practice and during games.
And Simmons recalled an interaction he had with Steelers owner Dan Rooney that touched him deeply and was life-changing.
“That first year I was laying on the training table shaking,” Simmons said. “My blood sugar was low. I was crying. Mr. Rooney sat next to me and said, ‘You have a life outside of football that’s more important than what’s going on out on that grass out there. You can’t do that if you don’t take care of yourself first.”
Simmons stayed with the Steelers through 2008 and then split his final year in the league in 2009 between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots.
His first year out of the NFL was a little rocky, but then he was contacted by the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, which asked him to sign on as a spokesman to educate people and help create awareness about diabetes.
Now Simmons travels the country speaking to children, adults, healthcare professionals and corporations about his personal experience with diabetes and offering information, encouragement and guidance.
And he may be in the best shape of his life. At 6’3”, Simmons played at well over 300 pounds. He is now down to 258 and follows a health and fitness regimen that includes a lighter version of weight training several days a week, with a couple of days of cycling.
His disease is managed by insulin and attentiveness to his diet and overall health. No food is totally off-limits, but he sticks to the mantra, “Everything in moderation.”
Simmons hopes to make a positive impact on those with the disease and to help those who might be able to avoid it through better lifestyle choices.
“I would say at least once a year or more I hear about a guy who’s been retired, who’s gotten overweight and has succumbed to Type 2 diabetes,” he said. “That’s what’s scary. Most guys gain weight not lose weight when they’re done and any family history intensifies. You’re setting yourself up for failure if you don’t take action right then. There are consequences to everything you do.”
His work with Novo Nordisk was also a critical element in his own transition from the NFL.
“I feel like the Lord knew exactly what he knew he was doing with me. I was struggling [after I retired]. I didn’t want to watch football. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself and I still had no knowledge of diabetes even though I’d had it for eight years.
“Job-wise I couldn’t ask for a better situation to be able to transition from the NFL and find a job that’s going to fulfill you. I’m so far ahead of the curve with that. I try my best to pay it forward with other people. I want to do a better job to be a better person and that’s a lifetime job.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.