A New Game Plan
Diagnosed just months ago, Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler talks about how he's managing his diabetes.
When Jay Cutler grips a football, it's easy to predict what will happen next: think of a missile rocketing across the field, its aim deadly and true. His shotgun arm is the main reason Cutler topped many sports experts' "players to watch" lists in 2007—his first full season as the Denver Broncos' starting quarterback.
Even before he was drafted, it was clear Cutler had potential. The Santa Claus, Ind., native played college ball at Vanderbilt University, and was picked up in the first round of the 2006 draft. Soon, the 6-foot-3-inch, 233-pound Cutler was being compared to the sport's elite players: former Bronco quarterback and Hall of Famer John Elway, the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning, the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, and the legendary Green Bay Packer (and now New York Jet) Brett Favre. Toward the end of his first season as a starter, he had averaged 7.49 yards per attempt, approaching the ranks of Favre and Manning.
Then, while sports fans were calling him the NFL's breakout star, Cutler started to falter. He lost weight—and strength. The powerful arm that got him noticed as a rookie started to lose its punch, and though Cutler still threw for 3,497 yards that season, he knew something was off.
In May, the 25-year-old athlete announced that he had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. During the Broncos' off-season, Cutler learned to manage the disease while training for one of the world's most physically demanding sports. By the time we spoke to him in August, Cutler was stronger, healthier, full of energy, and prepped to play his best season yet.
What were the events that led to your diagnosis?
I started losing a bunch of weight—I lost 8 pounds in one week. And then after that I'd lose 2 pounds every week. I lost 35 pounds in about two-and-a-half months…. Our season was over in the beginning of January, and I went to Atlanta and worked out there. [But] I didn't have any strength. We got back in March—we do these physicals before we can start working out again, and they do blood tests. And that's how they actually picked it up.
Did you know something was off?
I didn't know it was diabetes, and I didn't know any of the symptoms or anything like that. But I mean, I knew I wasn't right. I didn't really eat a lot, I was going to the bathroom all the time, my mouth was always dry, I was drinking tons of water, so I knew there was something wrong, but I didn't know exactly what it was.
What was your reaction to being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes?
Actually, I was relieved to find out what it was because it had been 6 months, and I felt horrible. I was really, really skinny. I was doing everything I could to get my weight back, and nothing was working. I was fatigued all the time. I was sleeping a lot. So, when I first found out, I mean I was relieved. And then I learned some information about it and … it's something that's going to stick with you for the rest of your life, so that's not the best news you want to hear. But I was talking with the doctors and our team trainer, and we learned that it's controllable and there is a lot of research out there about it. So I wasn't completely devastated.
How are you managing your diabetes now?
It's an everyday process, and you've got to be on top of it and aware of it, with working out and just watching what you're eating. We've got a great team surrounding me with the [nutritionist] and a chef and doctors and trainers. They're all watching me, so it's not as hard as [it would be for] an 8- or 9-year-old. It's something I'm dealing with and getting by with OK.
Do you have any concerns about managing your diabetes during the football season?
Right now, making sure that my [blood glucose] levels are OK while I'm playing. That's kind of the biggest concern because we're dealing with the heat and the physical activity and how intense it is…. I'm in the 120, 130 range. I went down to a 69 today at practice, which isn't good. [I've] always got to be on top of that. We're kind of experimenting with the Freestyle Navigator—the wireless blood glucose monitor. That's the biggest thing, just making sure I don't catch a low while we're out there on the field and something bad happens.
Have you learned through training how playing a full game will affect your blood glucose?
We have OTAs [off-season training activities] and minicamps all through the summer, so we had some dry runs in May, so I've got a good feel for it. Obviously when the intensity picks up and the heat picks up it lowers you a bit more, so you just have to be careful with it and make sure you check it. If I start feeling a little weak I check it and have some Gatorade. It's an ongoing process, it's always a battle.
How are you approaching the upcoming season?
It's going to be a fun time. Last year, I was always tired, I was 30 pounds underweight, and I didn't have a lot of strength. This year, I'll be able to make it through an entire season and stay healthy and stay strong. So I'm happy we found out what was wrong and we can move forward and have a good season.
Has being an NFL player made dealing with diabetes easier?
Not everyone has the kind of resources that I have … with all the doctors and trainers and my family and people just watching out for me 24-7 and making sure I'm eating right and doing stuff right. I mean, not everyone has access to a chef who makes meals and gives you your carb count. So that definitely simplified things. I'm one of the lucky ones.
Have you received much support from your teammates?
Oh definitely. Everyone's OK with it. I get my needles out right in our cafeteria. I check my blood sugar on the field. Everyone's open with it and everyone knows I have this, and everyone's OK with it and supporting me.
You had a coach in college who had diabetes. Have you learned from him?
Jimmy Kizer, he was my quarterback coach at Vanderbilt—still is the quarterback coach there. He got it I think when he was 25 or 26. So the day that I found out I called him. [He told] me what he thought and gave me some inside tips on how to deal with stuff, so he's been great. I've been able to tell him about some of the new technology out there. It's definitely good to have someone like that when you first find out.
How has your life changed since your diagnosis?
It's definitely changed off the field and on the field. I mean, I was 24 years old when I was diagnosed. I was used to doing whatever I wanted, eating whatever I wanted, drinking whatever I wanted, eating before bed, and not worrying about it. It's just things that you don't think about when you're 24 years old and just living your life.
You've been thrown even further into the spotlight since you were diagnosed. Is raising awareness of or advocating for type 1 diabetes something that you plan to do?
It's on the backburner right now, but it's definitely something I'm passionate about. This disease affects a lot of people and it's going to be with me for the rest of my life. I think I'm in a situation that not many people are that I can raise some awareness about it and raise some money to hopefully some day find a cure for it. It's something that right now I can't do—I just don't have the time. As soon as the season's over, though, we'll hit the road and hopefully help out some people.