Matt Ware played with Type 1 diabetes this past season.
Lifting his infant daughter out of her car seat one day, Matt Ware – listed at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds – could barely pick her up, feeling like she weighed 1,000 pounds.
“This,” Ware thought to himself, “is not right.”
It wasn’t right. Nor was losing 15 pounds in a little over two weeks in early 2009, or his constant trips to the restroom, or his overwhelming fatigue that led to far too many naps. The safety was already dealing with knee rehab, having arthroscopic surgery to clean out his right knee soon after the Super Bowl.
After getting his blood tested, Ware – at age 26 – found out he had Type 1 diabetes.
“I really didn’t even know what it meant,” Ware said.
Type 1 diabetes – historically called juvenile diabetes because that’s when people usually developed the disease -- means the body attacks itself and destroys the cells that make needed insulin. High blood sugar levels can cause fatigue and damage to organs. Low blood sugar levels can cause seizures, brain damage or even death.
Ware isn’t the first NFL player to deal with the disease. He’s not even the most high-profile player to be diagnosed after reaching the league. Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler was already well into his career when he found out he had diabetes in 2008 while playing for Denver, after he lost 33 pounds and had gotten noticeably weaker.
Ware was fortunate that he was in the offseason when his weight loss hit. At first, he assumed it was rehab-related, with an inability to work out as normal. But constantly being tired and needing to use the restroom grew to more than just an irritation.
There had been signs. Ware remembers feeling unexpectedly tired before playing the Falcons in the playoffs following the 2008 season and at other times during the Super Bowl run. At the time, he dismissed it as the adrenaline of the postseason and the arrival of his first child.
Head athletic trainer Tom Reed said Ware had always been a guy who had cramping problems, but usually they would fade as the season wore on. This time, Reed said Ware was fighting cramps “seemingly every other game.” A re-check of Ware’s preseason bloodwork showed nothing out of the ordinary. Reed asked Ware about any possible supplements that could be causing a problem, but those were ruled out.
The full story didn't come to light until March, when the pounds came off and Ware realized a lack of lifting weights was not the reason.
“We finally repeated his bloodwork and sure enough, during the course of one season his (blood sugar levels) had risen significantly,” Reed said.
There was no panic. There was no concern for his NFL career.
“It’s about being confident,” Ware said. “This isn’t, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ It’s going to be there anyway so there is no reason to pout about it. You go about your business and be who you are.”
Ware returned to the field in 2009 with few problems. During training camp and preseason games, Ware was still trying to find the right balance, having his levels drop far too low by the second half of games. But by the time the regular season began, the diabetes didn’t affect him on game days.
Ware was focused on what it would take to get right – “I had to go back to school because I had all these math equations I had to learn for my insulin,” he joked – and he now has learned what it takes to keep his blood sugar “just about perfect.”
Ware checks his levels before games and at halftime just to make sure. He found a mixture of Gatorade and water that allows him to stay properly hydrated, and these days, only “intermittently” has to do insulin injections, Reed said. Ware is vigilant in his own care, enough that he called himself “like a normal person.”
That didn't help him from normal football injuries, however. Ware tore his medial collateral ligament and sprained his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a December trip to San Francisco that ended his 2009 season early, leading to another round of rehab last offseason.
Because Ware dealt not only with the diabetes but also the knee rehab, his teammates named him the Cardinals’ 2010 Ed Block Courage award winner – which was the first time many of his teammates even found out Ware had diabetes.
“I just want to go about my business,” Ware said. “That was always my goal. Now that (the information) is out, my main mission is to help younger kids who might come down with it. Show them what is possible.
“I’m not the first guy to have diabetes and I won’t be the last guy to have it. I wanted to show I can take control of it and be at the highest level.”