When Mark Andrews was smashing receiving records at Desert Mountain High (Ariz.), he heard from two groups of strangers.
There were the college recruiters who flattered him with praise about all that he could do athletically. And there were the parents who marveled at all he had overcome medically. Andrews was a Type 1 diabetic, just like their children.
“It was something I had to deal with, and I wanted people to know about, and kind of be an inspiration,” the Ravens rookie tight end said recently. “It's something that big to me.”
At age 9, Andrews was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease, for which there is no cure. In Type 1 diabetes, the immune system erroneously damages the pancreas’ ability to produce insulin. The hormone controls how much glucose, a type of sugar, is passed from the blood into cells for conversion to energy.
About 1.25 million Americans have Type 1 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association, and an estimated 40,000 people will be newly diagnosed each year in the United States. Former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler was the league’s most high-profile diabetic, but Andrews is believed to be the NFL’s only current player with the disease.
If that means being the league’s face of Type 1 diabetes, it will be nothing new. From Scottsdale, Ariz., to the University of Oklahoma to Baltimore, he has preached the same message to children once like him: Diabetes doesn’t define you. It’s only a part of you. Don’t let it deter you from your dreams.
The Baltimore Sun spoke with five parents about what it means to have an NFL player offer that hope — and what more they hope he can offer.
Seeking an advocate
Ebby Bennett is a patient-service coordinator for Park Medical Associates in Lutherville. She used to work as a pediatric nurse. She has seen the ravages of disease. She knows its costs.
In late August, the bill on her mind was big. Recently, the cost of her daughter’s insulin pump supplies had come out to $467, she said, about the price of a club-level Ravens ticket.
“It's constant,” she said of the financial burden. “And I've got good insurance.”
Molly Dillon was 16 when she was diagnosed, a sophomore at Notre Dame Prep preparing for a springtime play. She was already thin, and had started to lose even more weight, Bennett said. One day, Dillon walked out of her mother’s bathroom after a shower.
“Oh, my God, she looked like death,” Bennett recalled, picturing her skinny frame, her gaunt face. “She really did.”
That night, they visited the doctor Bennett worked for. Dillon’s blood sugar was bad, her sodium and potassium levels worse. For about four days she remained in intensive care at Sinai Hospital.
Dillon persevered. She took ownership of the disease and her treatment. After her mother injected her for the first time, Dillon looked at her and said, “You will never do that again,” Bennett recalled. Dillon graduated from New York University’s renowned Tisch School of the Arts, then from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Now 26, she’s an actress in New York.
Dillon’s taken her diabetes and her Ravens fandom through all her travels. The latter, she advertises more publicly. Early in her studies in London, she was wearing a Ravens T-shirt while getting books for class. A store clerk came up to her. “Oh, the Ravens!” he told Dillon, her mother recalled. “I love the Ravens. I love Baltimore.” (He was apparently a big fan of “The Wire,” Bennett said.)
But her disease, Dillon is more discreet about. “Lots of times, unless you tell somebody, they don't know,” Bennett said. At a time of rising health-care costs, there can can be danger in that silence. Bennett remembered former NBA star Ray Allen, whose son is diabetic, testifying before Congress about juvenile diabetes research and funding five years ago. She wonders: Who is the sports world’s champion now?
“I would like to see someone like Mark Andrews be an advocate for lower insulin prices,” she said. “Because maybe if more people spoke out, more well-known people spoke out, maybe Congress would listen. Probably not. But maybe they would.”
‘He’s just like me’
When Caden Cubbage, at 19 months old, was diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic, his mother, Connie, said it was like being blindsided. But in the years since, another congenital complication has caused perhaps more uncertainty about his future.
Cowboys or Sooners?
Because Dad, of course, was an Oklahoma State fan, and Mom, you see, an Oklahoma diehard. Her kids tried not to play favorites, but for a time, Caden followed in his father’s footsteps. Then along came Andrews.
When Connie heard about the diabetic tight end from Arizona playing for her beloved Sooners, she took Caden to a few games. “He absolutely loved it,” she said. Last summer, the program held a Meet the Sooners Day before the season in Norman, Okla., over 100 miles from the Cubbages’ Owasso home. They made the trip.
Caden wanted to meet Andrews, to tell him they weren’t so different. So he showed Andrews his insulin pump, and Andrews showed Caden his, their moment of mutual recognition and understanding like something out of a reunited-at-last Hollywood storyboard.
Connie never could find the photographer who captured the image of the two. Still, she remembers it vividly, that feeling that her son and his favorite player were “truly connected.”
“It's hard to explain it as a mother, I guess,” she said. “I don't know. But it makes me feel good to see that in him, to see the excitement that, 'Hey, he's just like me.’ And that day that Mark showed him his insulin pump, I think Caden was just so elated. It's like, 'Hey, he truly is like me.' It was so personal.”
So personal that Caden wanted to change his number in football to No. 81, Andrews’ number at Oklahoma. (Too late, they were told. Caden settled by changing his lacrosse number to No. 81.) For as long as he has had the disease, he has worn it like a helmet sticker, a mark of pride, Connie said.
Not once has Caden, 9, missed a day of school because of complications. While his mother is still a little squeamish around needles — “I have passed out so many times,” she said, laughing — he is precocious in his self-care. Between games in August, he tested his blood sugar and gave himself an insulin shot on the sideline. His teammates looked on, almost in awe.
“It's just funny to see his teammates are like, 'Man, you just gave yourself a shot.' He's like, 'Yeah, no big deal,' ” Connie said. “I think in a way, he kind of likes it. It's like: 'I'm tough.' ”
In many ways, it has been easier for the family to manage his disease than the stigma around it. When Connie and her husband, Jason, signed Caden up for football in second grade, the local league pushed back. He was a diabetic, and to league officials that meant his health was a liability.
Caden’s team had already started practicing, and the coach went to the league with his case. Caden didn’t slack, he said, not on the field, not in his blood-sugar management. He would not be a problem. He deserved to chase his dream.
“If our coach hadn't stood up for us,” Connie said, “there would've been a fight.” Connie laughed before clarifying: She would’ve been the one to start it.
The more you know
On Superhero Day at Griffin Kopcsik’s elementary school in Morris County, N.J., some kids will show up in Spider-Man T-shirts. Others will dress up as Superman. Griffin represents the G Force. So does a team of friends who wear their support across their chest.
Griffin has told his father, Jeremy, that it “sucks” to be 9 years old and diabetic, but he is the diabetic who could perhaps best explain why the disease should not be a 9-year-old’s kryptonite. His father’s tales of Griffin’s heroics are already legion:
» In first grade, when he was diagnosed, Griffin stood up in front of a roomful of first-, second- and third-graders and talked about the disease.
» Every time the Kopcsiks meet someone for the first time, Griffin will bug his dad. “Did you tell them? Did you tell them?” Jeremy recalled. “Like, he wants people to know that he has Type 1.”
» In 2017, G Force raised $18,741 at the JDRF One Walk, the most of any participant in the Type 1 diabetes advocacy and research organization’s New Jersey Metro and Rockland County Chapter.
There is no way to conquer the disease, not yet anyway, so Griffin does the next-best thing. He refuses to live in fear of it. From meal to meal, shot to shot, day to day, he confronts his diabetes with a confidence that makes his father at once proud and confused.
Because if a prepubescent kid who has to be cautious around cupcakes can be a powerful voice, why can’t others?
For other diabetes-stricken families in their community, Jeremy said, it’s like “it doesn't exist.”
“Those are kind of a head-scratcher for us,” he said. “We've always been very open about it and we figure that the more people that know what Griffin’s going through and what he's experiencing on a daily basis, the more they're willing to help and the more that he feels normal, really.”
It’s why Jeremy, a born-and-bred New Jerseyan and New York Giants fan, looks to Andrews and others like him. He wants to be able to point to the TV on a fall Saturday or Sunday and tell Griffin, “See this guy? He has diabetes.” The point isn’t that Andrews is an NFL-caliber athlete; Griffin is one of the area’s better swimmers and lacrosse players for his age, Jeremy said.
“It's more just to show that there's nothing holding [him] back,” he added. “You can be whatever type of person that you want to be. The fact that you have Type 1 diabetes is just an impediment to what you ultimately want to be, but there's no excuses. … I don't ever want him to be, like, 'Oh, I can't keep up,' or, 'I'm struggling because of Type 1.' In my book, that's just not acceptable.”
Griffin can change only so much. Not long after his diagnosis, he and his family were somewhere in the South, Jeremy said, out at a restaurant for dinner. Griffin wanted the pasta. Jeremy and his wife asked their waitress how many carbohydrates were in the meal; they couldn’t administer his insulin without calculating how much to give.
The waitress, not knowing the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes — obesity and inactivity typically cause the latter — assured the family not to worry. All Griffin had to do was get more exercise and start eating better, she said. Then he’d be all right.
Jeremy’s wife couldn’t have been madder if she’d spat in their drinks; he still doesn’t know how she kept it together. He does know how the community can do better. Griffin’s an open book about his diabetes, and that helps. But others must share their stories, too.
“The more they know about Type 1, the better it is, not just for Griffin,” he said, “but for the entire Type 1 community as a whole.”
Sources of inspiration
Long before he was the father of a diabetic son, Bill Kinloch was the diabetic son of a father who just wanted to help.
Bill grew up in Pennsylvania, and he played hockey. After Bill was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 8 years old, his father and grandfather reached out on his behalf to perhaps the state’s most famous diabetic. Bill’s a Pittsburgh Penguins fan, but for a little while, Philadelphia Flyers legend Bobby Clarke, one of the game’s greatest captains and a diabetic since his adolescence, was his pen pal.
“That's what struck a chord with me,” Bill said.
Will, Bill’s son, is 8 now, too, and five years into his own diabetes diagnosis. Born premature with his twin, Tenley, in 2010, Will also has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects his movement, and alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss.
Will doesn’t have his own Bobby Clarke. With his parents’ help, he has a roster of them. When the Detroit Pistons were in Washington to face the Wizards several years ago, Bill and Will went to a pregame meet-and-greet with Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva, who also has alopecia. Will got a photo with him.
A few years later, a friend gifted Bill tickets to a Washington Capitals game against the Arizona Coyotes. Max Domi wore No. 16 for the Coyotes, and for a reason familiar to Bill: Domi was diabetic, and that was the number Clarke had worn. Bill and Will headed down to ice level before the game, and Will held up his glucose meter along the glass. Domi saw it, and Will got a puck.
When the Ravens drafted Andrews in April, Bill’s father texted him right away — Bill’s family, Pennsylvania roots aside, is one with both Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers fandoms. When they listened to Andrews’ appearance on the “Diabetes Connections with Stacey Simms” podcast this summer, neither Andrews nor Will knew what a Berger Cookie was. Ultimately, Will’s curiosity got the best of Bill. Will got a cookie.
“I was like, 'Well, you probably shouldn't,' but I've since bought them and regret buying them to this day,” Bill said, laughing. “He said, 'But, Dad, when I'm low [in blood sugar], this would be great.' I was like, 'Yeah, you're right.' ”
Will participates in special-needs hockey, but his cerebral palsy means it is unlikely he will compete at the levels his father did. Bill knows this. As a teacher at Oakdale Middle School in Mount Airy, he also knows that exposing children to new ideas, new possibilities, can broaden their conception of what is possible.
“Just seeing this person and being able to communicate with him, I think, is so huge,” he said. “To be able to talk to that person, one on one — I'd like to see this person on TV, but he's just like me. He has to check his blood sugar.”
Villanueva, Domi, Andrews — they all have something Will does, too. They’ve been sources of inspiration, Bill said, in-the-flesh reminders that there are no limits on what Will can do.
Well, almost no limits. Will has read that Domi has a therapy dog for his diabetes, Bill explained, chuckling. He doesn’t know whether he can get that for Will, too.
A platform to educate
Barry Catterton’s daughter, Sarah, came to him about seven or eight years ago with what she thought were symptoms of diabetes. She’d learned about the disease in a nutrition class, and the warning signs seemed to be playing out in real time.
Barry and his wife “kind of blew it off,” he said. Sarah’s the worrying type, they had reasoned. There was little precedent in the family’s medical history. Only when her health did not improve was Sarah taken to see the doctor.
Her blood sugar was high then, but only a little. A week later, she saw a general practitioner. Her blood sugar was much worse, four or five times higher than the advised level. She was sent to the emergency room. She’s needed insulin ever since.
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“It was fortunate,” said Barry, who knew what it meant to be unfortunate in such a case. About 17 years ago, he said, the daughter of a close family friend died. As her health worsened, the flu was blamed. Later, they realized they’d erred. Her Type 1 diabetes had not been diagnosed.
It’s difficult now for Barry to consider what might’ve happened had Sarah’s doctor visit been put off another week.
“Getting the diagnosis is very difficult to hear, and seeing your child have to do the testing multiple times a day and do injections. That’s what they need,” he said. “And then you think about the alternative and you feel blessed.”
Sarah is 26 now, an elementary-school teacher in Parkville who calls her mother almost nightly to catch up and texts with her father about the Ravens. When they drafted Andrews this spring, Barry pointed out the team’s new diabetic to her. About two weeks after Andrews was picked, Barry tweeted at him: “Thank you for inspiring my daughter who is a huge @Ravens fan and a [Type 1 diabetic]! You are now her favorite Raven.”
At Halstead Academy, where Sarah teaches kindergarten, she has helped those too young to even have a favorite team. Last year, Barry said, Sarah encountered a recently diagnosed diabetic about to start school. The child’s mom was nervous, wary of the care of strangers. She assured the mother: “I’m here to help, too.”
“When you have the disease, you think you’re the only one,” Barry said. “Mark has the opportunity, the platform, to educate people on the disease, to help raise funds for a cure, help to raise research for advances in technology and just to educate people a little bit so that people have a better understanding of it, so they understand the difference between Type 1 and Type 2. They don’t just hear diabetes and assume, well, you did that to yourself by not eating well or not exercising.
“I think it’d be helpful to Sarah for all those reasons, to feel like, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one.’ ”