SI Vault
Andrea Woo
January 19, 2004
With constant vigilance, diabetic athletes can still have very successful careers
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January 19, 2004

Playing Through

With constant vigilance, diabetic athletes can still have very successful careers

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In his 15 YEARS as a center for the Philadelphia Flyers, from 1969-70 to '83-84, Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke was renowned for his jack-o'-lantern smile and fiery on-ice style—and, when dealing with his diabetes, a stoicism typical of his sport. "I was a hockey player who happened to have diabetes," says Clarke, who won three MVP awards and played on two Stanley Cup winners. "I did whatever I could so that I could play. For me, the management of the disease wasn't a whole lot different than that of anybody else who has it."

Clarke—now 54, the Flyers' G.M. and known as Bob—is among the many diabetic athletes who, with careful monitoring of their illness, have been able to enjoy lengthy careers. Kelli Kuehne and Scott Verplank are both successful professional golfers who wear insulin pumps. Swimmer Gary Hall Jr. won a total of four gold medals at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics Games. (He has even produced a 33-minute instructional and motivational video, Diabetes 101, that can be ordered at Second-year Pittsburgh Steelers guard Kendall Simmons discovered he had adult-onset diabetes just before the start of training camp last July; he had some trouble at first, losing 40 pounds and suffering from blurred vision, but eventually he bounced back to regain his starting spot. Ron Santo was a nine-time All-Star third baseman with the Chicago Cubs in the 1960s and '70s, though now, at age 63, having had both legs amputated below the knee, he's also a prime example of how destructive the disease can be.

Clarke's success as a diabetic athlete inspired others—including a young Chris Dudley, who found out during his sophomore year in high school that he had the disease. Dudley went on to a 17-year career as a center with five NBA teams, and he in turn became a role model for youthful diabetics. Ten years ago Dudley started an eponymous foundation to aid such children; each August he holds a basketball camp for diabetics in Vernonia, Ore. (45 miles west of Portland). The message Dudley imparts to his campers is simple: Diabetes will not hinder them in pursuit of their athletic goals as long as they take care of themselves by watching their carbohydrate intake, measuring their blood sugar and maintaining their insulin level. He also tells them of his own routine. On game days he tested his blood sugar as often as 13 times and kept test kits with the team trainer.

Though technology and medicine have advanced greatly for diabetics—Clarke recalls his mother's having to boil syringes and weigh his food when he was young—not all afflicted athletes have been able to sustain their careers. In 1998, while a member of the Oakland A's, Kevin Mitchell, the 1989 National League MVP, began experiencing blurred vision and excessive thirst, and he lost 59 pounds in three weeks. The symptoms caused him to leave the club; soon after, it was discovered that he was diabetic, and he was through in the majors at age 36.

Still, as so many diabetic athletes demonstrate, the disease doesn't have to scuttle a sports career. "It never affected [how I played]," says Clarke. "If anything, the more and harder you can work as a diabetic, the better you'll be."

Says Dudley, "You can't let diabetes stop you, but you also don't ignore it. You just have to embrace it and learn how to deal with it."