When the U.S. House Appropriations Committee met early this year to consider how to allocate tax dollars, no organization had a more riveting advocate than the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. At 6'3" and 290 pounds, with his shaved head, mustache and goatee, Bear guard Jay Leeuwenburg has a presence that commands as much attention in a congressional hearing room as it does on, say, a Rashaan Salaam burst up the middle.
"I guess what I said did some good," says Leeuwenburg, "because the funding was continued. The best part was that I felt like for the first time in my life, I had an effect on how the exorbitant amount of tax dollars I've paid the last few years are spent."
Leeuwenburg, 26, a fourth-year pro from Colorado, has known he has diabetes, a condition in which there's too much sugar in the blood, since the summer before he entered the eighth grade in Kirkwood, Mo. During a visit to his maternal grandparents in Manzanita, Ore., Leeuwenburg became violently ill and was hospitalized. He lost 30 pounds, became dehydrated, couldn't quench his thirst and vomited repeatedly. His condition was diagnosed as type I juvenile diabetes.
"There are two types of diabetes," says Leeuwenburg. "In type I, the body either quits producing insulin [a hormone that enables the body to use and store glucose quickly] or produces faulty insulin that the body rejects. In type II, the body produces insulin but not enough of it. Type II can be controlled by diet and pills, but type I requires daily injections of insulin."
So Leeuwenburg, whose family has no history of diabetes, gives himself an injection three times a day before meals. He monitors his sugar level by putting a "dipstick" in his urine or pricking a finger to get a blood sample (on a game day Leeuwenburg says he tests his blood 25 or more times). "I've talked to my teammates about it," he says. "One of them will say, 'My grandmother has diabetes,' and that opens a dialogue. Or they'll ask me to talk with a friend who has diabetes. It's been a positive experience."
A cerebral sort, Leeuwenburg enjoys reading, cooking and making ceramic bowls, vases and mugs. He graduated from Colorado in 1991 with a degree in English and one day hopes to own a bookstore where he can also sell his ceramics.
But don't think he doesn't have a mean streak. When Leeuwenburg enters the locker room, he checks his sensitive side at the door. The starting center at Colorado for three seasons, he was so tough that after breaking his right hand in the second game of his senior year, against Stanford, he snapped the rest of the season with his left hand. Still, he was named All-America. "I have a creative side that I don't often get to use in football," Leeuwenburg says, "and I try not to let the two sides mix too much. I like to believe I'm one of the most intense guys on the team, and I try to be the best lineman in the NFL." He has come a long way. A ninth-round draft choice of the Chiefs in 1992, he was waived at the end of preseason and picked up by the Bears. In Chicago he has started for the past three seasons and has played all five positions on the line. He is also the long snapper.
Leeuwenburg is proof that most diabetics can lead normal lives provided they're disciplined enough to eat properly and take their medication. "I'm proud that I've never missed a down of football because of diabetes," he says. "Not in high school, not in college and not in the pros." He's as strong as any of the Bears' other linemen, except backup guard Todd Burger, and he doesn't have to avoid much in the way of food.
"If there's some food I have a craving for," he says, "I make an adjustment in the rest of my diet. I've never had a problem taking insulin. I take it as a part of me, a responsibility I have to accept to lead a healthy life. It's pretty simple, really. I either take insulin, or I'm going to die."