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Pro Soccer Player Jordan Morris Talks Type 1 Diabetes

A soccer phenom with type 1 diabetes is paying it forward

By Benjamin Page ,

Jordan Morris
Photography by Mike Fiechtner/Sounders FC Communications

When pro soccer player Jordan Morris was a kid, his parents gave him a basketball jersey that had belonged to NBA player Adam Morrison. Growing up in Seattle, Morris had always been interested in a range of sports, including basketball and soccer, and in Morrison he saw a local success story—a professional athlete who got his start with the Gonzaga University Bulldogs in nearby Spokane, Washington. But Morris and Morrison have more in common than geography; they both have type 1 diabetes. “I didn’t know him,” Morris says of his childhood idol. “But just seeing that this guy with diabetes was doing what I wanted to do was inspirational.”

Now, at 24, Morris has his own name on a jersey, playing forward for the Seattle Sounders professional soccer club as well as the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team. And he’s using the opportunity to show kids with diabetes that they, too, can accomplish their dreams.

A Team Effort

Morris’s mom was the first to notice something was wrong. As a nurse, she recognized the symptoms of type 1 diabetes when Morris was 9 years old. He was frequently sick, losing weight, and constantly thirsty, so she took her son to see a doctor. Her suspicions were confirmed. “The first question my mom asked was, ‘Can he keep playing sports?’ ” Morris says. “The doctor said, ‘The more the better.’ ”

Morris happily followed the doctor’s orders. A year later, he’d earned a spot with Eastside FC, the Seattle area’s premier youth soccer club. This early stage of his athletic career played a key role in helping him learn to manage his diabetes. “Sports in general—getting out and running around—will keep you healthier, keep your blood sugar at a more stable level,” he says.

Staying active helped him avoid elevated glucose levels, but the constant exercise—training, practice, games—meant lows were also a concern. “It was a lot of trial and error,” says Morris, who used a meter to monitor his blood glucose at the time.

He didn’t have to go it alone, though. “My dad was really invested,” says Morris, whose father is an orthopedic surgeon and chief medical officer for the Seattle Sounders. “He would look at my [blood glucose] trends, and we would go through stuff together.”

At 14, Morris got his first insulin pump. “That’s when I really started taking over my own control,” he says.

Finding the right balance in his diet was a key part of that. “Everyone’s body reacts differently to different foods,” Morris says. “So that was a big learning curve, finding foods that work for me.” Now he tries to avoid refined carbohydrates (think white bread and pastries as opposed to whole grains) by sticking with foods rich in healthy fats and proteins.

Morris played with Eastside FC through high school and helped the team place third in two U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships. After joining the Sounders FC youth academy for one season, he went on to play soccer at Stanford University. In 2016, after his junior year of college, he left school to play with the Sounders. By then, he had a strong sense of how to manage his type 1 diabetes.

But professional soccer introduced its own challenges.

The Roar of the Crowd

While Morris once had trouble with lows, he had the opposite problem after going pro. “Toward the end of a game, my blood sugar would be 250 or 300 [mg/dl],” he says. This can occur after quick bursts of high-intensity activity, such as sprinting from one end of the field to the other.

But Morris thinks there’s an additional reason: the adrenaline rush. “Playing in front of these fans—that’s a whole new level of play,” he says. “I think my body was reacting to that.”

Morris and his father worked together to find a solution. The insulin pump he used at the time had to be removed during games because the tubing got in the way. Morris found that taking a unit of insulin before disconnecting the pump kept his blood glucose in goal range until halftime. If a meter check showed he was off target during the break, he could treat the high before returning to the field.

A couple of years ago, Morris switched to a tubeless pump that he can wear during games. “I can still have some insulin going even when I’m out there playing, and that’s helped me,” he says. He also recently started using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), including during games. “That’s completely changed my life. Instead of having to prick my finger 10 times a day, I just check my phone or receiver,” he says. “It reads your [glucose] every five minutes.”

Morris’ teammates know he has diabetes—it’s hard to miss the tattoo on his right forearm, a black and white image of the staff of Hermes below the characters “T1D”—but it’s not something he talks about much. He works just as hard as his teammates and doesn’t want any special treatment. “If anyone has questions, I’m very open to explaining,” he says. “[But] I don’t want to use it as an excuse.”

Not that he’d ever need to. Since joining the Sounders, Morris has surpassed a record for rookie goal-scoring and helped his team win the MLS Cup, the national championship game of Major League Soccer. While playing for the U.S. men’s team in 2017, he scored the championship-winning goal against Jamaica.

His trainers are always on the sidelines with gummies if his blood glucose should drop. Still, even the best diabetes management can’t defend against the injuries all athletes risk.

Injury and Opportunity

Last year, during an international match in El Salvador, Morris tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee. The injury put him out of commission for an entire season. 

Morris was used to adjusting his diabetes management during the off-season, so he applied the same strategies during his recovery. Because his body required less energy, he ate fewer carbs and needed less insulin as a result. He also stayed active. He went through rehab, using strength training to learn how to walk normally again, and was eventually able to start biking.

The downtime gave him a chance to focus on the Jordan Morris Foundation, the charitable organization he founded in 2017 under the umbrella of the nonprofit Seattle Foundation. As part of its overall mission to support kids with type 1 diabetes, the foundation provides donations to local diabetes camps and hopes to one day fund a program at the Seattle Children’s Hospital for families who can’t afford diabetes supplies.

While he has yet to meet the athletes he admired as a kid, Morris hopes to inspire kids with type 1 diabetes by interacting with them personally. “We do elementary school visits, hospital visits,” he says. “It’s just about reaching as many kids as possible to let them know they can do anything they want.”

Back in the Game

After a slow but steady recovery, Morris returned for the opening game of the 2019 season, scoring two goals that helped give the Sounders a win. He’s back on the U.S. Men’s National Team, where he hopes to help the United States lead in the international arena. It feels good to be back, he says, but it’s not just about him.

The Jordan Morris Foundation coordinates with the Sounders to bring a kid with diabetes onto the field after every game. These fans get to stand at the center of a massive stadium, surrounded by lights. They get to meet a pro athlete with diabetes. But best of all, they get a jersey of their own: an autographed Morris No. 13.

 

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