- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Washington Redskins guard Jay Leeuwenburg's pre-game ritual is bloody. Every 15 minutes for two hours before kickoff, Leeuwenburg monitors his glucose level. He keeps a bottle of Gatorade near the bench. Medication is always close by.

Leeuwenburg is diabetic. Type 1. Insulin dependent. Few childhood diabetics have overcome the restrictive lifestyle to reach the NFL. Leeuwenburg thrives on it.

"I believe the diabetes has helped me be a better athlete," he said. "It has made me have more discipline. If you don't worry about the little things you're going to have complications and not feel well. I need to control my disease and not let it control me."

Seattle defensive end Mike Sinclair and golfer Michelle McGann are diabetics. So were Ty Cobb and Arthur Ashe. But most athletes are the less-restrictive Type 2, where medication can offset a poorly-functioning pancreas' inability to absorb glucose into cells. Leeuwenburg is among one million Americans whose pancreas doesn't function. He requires constant medical supervision.
The regimen is unforgiving. Failure to follow it means periods of lightheadedness or blurred vision. Indeed, diabetes is a major cause of blindness and heart and kidney disease. Leeuwenburg knows his career could end prematurely without the close daily monitoring.
Leeuwenburg tests his blood sugar level via his fingers with a pen-like needle six to eight times daily, but 20 to 30 times on game days. He injects four to eight insulin shots daily into his legs. A low-fat, high carbohydrate diet permits energy for practices, but he regularly avoids sugary foods. Still, it's not a completely spartan lifestyle.
"As long as you have a healthy diet, you can have ice cream once or twice a week as long as you allot for it," he said. "The disease is a little more forgiving when you're out here for two hours [practicing]."
Leeuwenburg, 31, was your everyday sixth-grader when diagnosed. He wouldn't hear of a restricted lifestyle without sports. After all, his father Richard was an offensive tackle for the Chicago Bears in 1965 whose No. 57 is now donned by the son. Leeuwenburg gave up his dream of becoming an astronaut, but he wouldn't surrender playing sports, too.
"I didn't give my doctors a choice. I said 'Let's make it work,' " Leeuwenburg said. "I've never missed a down of football or any athletic event because of diabetes. I feel like my teammates and coaches can depend on me to always be there."
The Redskins reviewed Leeuwenburg's medical past before signing him on June 12. An eight-year veteran with Chicago (1992-95), Indianapolis (1996-98) and Cincinnati (1999), Leeuwenburg started 96 of 121 games. He'll start the season opener against Carolina on Sept. 3 for suspended guard Tre Johnson and could become the deep snapper. The Redskins say Leeuwenburg's play isn't compromised by his diabetes.
"It doesn't show up on the football field," said offensive line coach Russ Grimm. "The diabetes doesn't matter. He's a tough, blue-collar guy."
Said trainer Bubba Tyer: "Jay knows how to manage it. If he needs a Gatorade or sandwich during practice, there are no questions asked."
Leeuwenburg knows the warning signs of a low-blood-sugar attack caused by the hard physical demands. When feeling lightheaded, he will reach for a snack or sugary drink to raise his glucose level.
"You have to be able to tell the signs your body gives you," Leeuwenburg said. "If I feel my blood sugar getting low, I ask the trainers for Gatorade or something with simple sugar. In high school, I had a six pack of Coke on the sidelines."
A Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International board member who regularly raised research funds, Leeuwenburg often lectures on diabetes.
"I feel like it's a mission of mine to educate people on what diabetes is and that you can play professional football," he said. "That your children can become a gymnast or whatever. There don't have to be limitations. People are afraid of what they don't know. Hopefully, they won't have those prejudices against future diabetics. I feel extremely hopeful in my lifetime there will be a cure."

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