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Playing for Syracuse, Andrew Armstrong keeps a positive view on type 1 diabetes

I caught up with the Orange linebacker this week to chat about something we have in common.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

As many as 3 million adults in the United States have type 1 diabetes, and about 30,000 more individuals are diagnosed with the disease each year. In 1999, I became part of that statistic at 11 years old, and have dealt with it for the 18 years since. Syracuse Orange linebacker Andrew Armstrong received his own diagnosis a lot more recently in life, as a senior at Cardinal Mooney High School.

Everyone deals with diseases -- type 1 or otherwise -- on their own terms. And for me, it’s only recently been something I discuss openly. However, Andrew was more than willing to take the time to discuss how he deals with type 1. He and I spoke on the phone after Thursday morning’s practice.

“I was actually diagnosed my senior year of high school, in November,” he said. I played my junior year of football prior to being diagnosed. I felt real sluggish throughout the season, had frequent urination, mood swings, I wasn’t eating or drinking a ton -- I just didn’t feel right.

So when my parents brought me to the doctor and they ran some tests and my blood sugar was in the 400s. They rushed me to the emergency room, and there they diagnosed me with Type 1.”

For people with working pancreas, blood sugar levels typically range from 70 or so up to 120/130. Their body produces insulin to help break down sugar in the bloodstream, regulating that number to stay within a certain range at all times. If a non-diabetic eats a lot of sugar, their body balances that out with insulin. And if they’re very active or haven’t eaten in awhile, their body also regulates blood sugar levels there, too.

That’s not the case for diabetics, who must constantly monitor blood sugar levels, and administer insulin (via injection or insulin pump) multiple times per day to help stabilize that number. A typical diabetic’s blood sugar would sit between 70 and 180 (give or take a bit on each end depending on the doctor). A number in the 400s, like Andrew experienced, was nearly three times that amount.

“(The diagnosis) was a huge shock to me and my family. I didn’t really have any familiarity with the disease. The first question I asked the doctor was if I was going to be able to play sports. He said ‘Yeah, no problem. You just need to manage it correctly. Stay active, eat right and really manage your blood sugar.’”

Coincidentally enough, that’s also the first question I asked my own doctor nearly two decades ago.

While I may have been a bit too young at the time to vocalize how I dealt with my diagnosis, Andrew’s handled things far differently.

“I’m always anxious to reach out to other people that have my disease, talk to them one-on-one, let them know what I’m going through. It’s always nice whenever I get a chance to reach out to the type 1 community and speak out about it.”

Andrew’s also adamant about differentiating type 1 and type 2 diabetes -- a common misconception among those unfamiliar with the conditions or their various differences. About 95 percent of the time, type 1 diagnoses are given to juveniles (hence the alternative “juvenile diabetes” label). There’s little rhyme or reason for it happening to anyone — the pancreas simply stops working properly.

Type 2, on the other hand, is typically age-onset or caused by poor diet, lack of exercise and other risk factors. While type 2 can be managed through better diet, exercise and various oral medications, type 1 demands insulin injections to keep those individuals alive.

Having type 1 diabetes complicates matters a bit on the football front, as it is strenuous activity — especially playing in Dino Babers’s system. But it doesn’t prevent Andrew from playing exactly like he did before he was diagnosed (he collected 16 tackles as a reserve freshman for the Orange last year). Like any other diabetic, he’s just smart about knowing his levels at all times.

“I exercise everyday between workouts and practices to help keep my numbers lower. I have to check my blood sugar multiple times during practice -- plus once before, once after. I just have to make sure my blood sugar is at a constant rate throughout practice. I eat healthy -- try to avoid a lot of sugar and carbs.”

Along with staying in sync with his own body, Andrew also has some help from the Orange training staff during practices, which help his levels stay where they need to be. Since he’s exercising constantly during practice, going high isn’t necessarily a concern. But a low blood sugar is very much a possibility, and those can sometimes arrive without much warning.

“Our head trainer is actually type 1 as well, so he’s been a great asset. Always checking on me during major drills, making sure my blood sugar’s alright. When we have a break at practice, he’ll have an assistant trainer come over and I’ll check my blood sugar then. We also have Gatorade and snacks on the sideline in case I go low. The training staff’s definitely been very helpful for me.”

With that infrastructure in place, it’s allowed Andrew to comfortably transition from high school to college life -- the latter, he admits, operates at a much quicker pace, and puts additional demands on his diabetes management. But he’s on top of it on and off the field, and that’s made all the difference in his time at SU so far.

Still, despite all of the extra concerns he has to deal with while playing football, he doesn’t want those to define who he is, or make anyone feel sorry for him. As a sophomore in college, he just wants to be looked at like anyone else.

“I just want people to know that even though I have this disease, I can still accomplish my dreams through hard work and dedication.

Andrew’s already gotten active in the CNY type 1 community, and is immediately forthright and realistic about the disease. He credits his demeanor around type 1 to his later diagnosis in life, when he was mature enough to understand the consequences of it, and manage his health accordingly.

When I was a kid, I told myself I wanted to mange type 1, not let it manage me. To a point, that mantra’s worked -- though not without some bumps along the way (as is the case for anyone dealing with a chronic condition). But while those were words that made an 11-year old feel better about his situation, when you hear Andrew speak, it’s far more believable. He’s determined and downright enthusiastic about dealing with his diabetes. And his positive outlook shines through how he talks about it.

“I’ve dedicated myself to it -- me and my family,” he said. “I want to master it, know everything there is to know about it. Through hard work and discipline, it’s paid off.”