Dallas Cowboys assistant Wade Wilson sought out Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler to impart some advice after one of their teams' joint workouts this week.
It wasn't about avoiding blitzes, reading defenses or mastering a play book.
The Cowboys' quarterbacks coach and 19-year NFL veteran signal-caller wanted to speak to his fellow Type 1 diabetic about managing his disease along with the offense.
"I let him know that somebody has been down that path that has a lot of support for him and if he takes care of himself that there's no reason that he shouldn't have a great career," said Wilson, who played 14 seasons after being diagnosed as insulin dependent in 1986.
Cutler's diagnosis came this spring just before his 25th birthday, and the third-year quarterback is still learning how his body and mind react to excessive heat and exertion on the football field that can send his blood sugars plummeting.
"He's dealt with it for a long time, said it was manageable, just like I've been trying to do the last four or five months," Cutler said. "He went through this career with it, and I don't see any reason why I can't."
Cutler's diagnosis came after he inexplicably lost 35 pounds last season, then could hardly get out of bed for offseason workouts his strength and stamina were so sapped.
Wilson's experience was similar.
"It was about the same part of my career. I lost weight, had the same symptoms Jay went through, although it was in the offseason and not during the season," Wilson said. "I got with a doctor, got on insulin, got knowledgeable about the disease and was able to play for a long time with it."
Wilson, who has been an NFL assistant coach since 2000, was 27 and entering his fifth season with the Minnesota Vikings when he was diagnosed. He went on to play 15 more years in the league, with the Vikings, Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas and Oakland.
"I told him it's not a big deal if you take care of yourself," Wilson said. "You have to go about your business of diabetes just like you do your football job. If he can go out and handle that, it should be no problem for him."
Cutler lost not only a lot of weight but some serious zip on his throws last season but neither he nor the Broncos heeded warning signs, including constant fatigue and unexplained weight loss, until team medical personnel noticed a high blood sugar reading in routine tests in March and sent him to a diabetes specialist.
Cutler, who like Wilson, had no family history of diabetes, said friends kept asking him why he looked so pale and was losing so much weight. He didn't have an answer, other than to guess it was just the stress of playing quarterback in football-mad Denver, where he's constantly compared to John Elway.
Thanks to synthetic insulin and a drastic change in diet, Cutler's blood sugars are down, his weight and spirits are up and his famous fastballs are back, as evidenced by his receivers' incessantly sore hands.
Cutler said he won't wear his $5,000-plus insulin pump during games for fear he would get hit in his abdomen, crushing the contraption and maybe sending an overdose of the hormone into his belly.
Cutler ditches his insulin pump for practices, too, but he often wears a glucometer on his left arm that provides constant blood sugar readings. Occasionally, he comes to the sideline for finger pricks to test his blood sugars.
"Once I hit the field, I am not really thinking about it," Cutler said early in camp. "I have a monitor that monitors my blood sugar every minute. Greek (head athletic trainer Steve Antonopulos) just walks by me and tells me where I am at. If I am feeling OK, then I feel OK. I do have a pump, but when it gets really hot out it gets a little sticky and I don't like messing with it."
Cutler said he feels like a million bucks now.
"I've got everything back," he said.
The zip on his throws, the strength in his shoulders, his vigor, his cordiality, his swagger.
As long as Cutler manages his disease through exercise, medication and diet, there's no medical reason he wouldn't be able to continue performing at the NFL level. He'll have to monitor his blood glucose levels during games and drink some Gatorade if his sugars drop too low or take a shot of insulin if they skyrocket.
About 21 million Americans have diabetes, meaning their bodies cannot properly turn blood sugar into energy. Either they don't produce enough insulin or don't use it correctly. With the Type 1 form that Cutler has, the body's immune system attacks insulin-producing pancreatic cells, so that patients require insulin injections to survive. It usually, but not always, strikes in childhood.
Cutler, the 11th pick in the 2006 draft, threw for nearly 3,500 yards and 20 touchdowns last season but the Broncos missed the playoffs for a second straight year. It was obvious as the season wore on that his arm strength wasn't what it was his rookie year, when he started the final five weeks of the season.
In the weight room, he couldn't lift as much, and when he and teammates Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler, fellow members of the Broncos' heralded 2006 draft class, gathered in Atlanta over the winter to work out together, Cutler was so exhausted it was all he could do to just hit the snooze button.
"He couldn't get out of bed for workouts," Scheffler recalled. "I think it was more relief than anything that he's finally got it taken care of and he's on top of it, and I think it's going to make him a better player and a better person."
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