Jake Byrne was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a teen, and he didn’t let his condition stop him from pursuing his dreams of playing professional football. He also wrote a book to inspire others with type 1 diabetes to pursue their dreams. We talked to Jake about his journey and the advice he would give to young people recently diagnosed.
How old were you when you first became interested in football?
Since I was a little kid. My parents are from Wisconsin, and I grew up watching the Green Bay Packers every Sunday. I first started playing football in the 3rd grade.
When were you diagnosed with type 1 diabetes?
I was diagnosed when I was a sophomore in high school; I was 15 years old.
How did your diagnosis affect the trajectory of your football career at the time?
The largest hurdle to overcome was how to manage a new disease with the physical and mental demands the game of football put on someone’s body.
Did you become discouraged about your future?
Yes, the most noticeable change was the sudden weight loss. I lost around 30 lbs. and had to figure out how to adjust to a completely new lifestyle living with T1D.
What worried you the most, and how did you move forward?
How to manage my blood sugar was my biggest worry. Stabilizing my blood sugar to be able to stay in a healthy range for a 2-3 hr. game or practice was such a challenge. There was just not a lot of information or people I knew that could provide helpful insight on how to manage in such an extreme environment. For the most part, it was trial and error that was my method of finding what worked for me.
What was your most memorable football experience?
I have a couple. I never thought I would make it as far as I did in my football career. I always wanted to make it to the NFL, but I set more short-term goals that seemed realistic at the time. The first was after I finally got in a good rhythm with my diabetes and football and was able to play well enough to earn my first scholarship offer from the University of Arkansas. This eventually led to several other offers, which lead to my decision to attend the University of Wisconsin. The second was my Junior year when we beat Ohio State (who was #1 in the country), which lead us to become Big10 Champions earning us an invitation to play in the rose bowl in Pasadena, CA. The third was when I finally got a shot to play in my first NFL game on Sunday for the Huston Texans.
What was the most challenging aspect for you in regard to playing football with type 1 diabetes?
Keeping my blood sugar in a safe range. Lows were always a struggle.
Tell us a little bit about your book. What prompted you to write it? What was the inspiration and motivation behind it?
The inspiration behind the book started when I first received a letter from a young kid who was struggling to convince his parents to let him play football, triggering the feelings around how lost I was when I was first diagnosed. I was looking for some hope and guidance on how to move forward. From that point, I wanted to find a way to share my story to help others that were going through a difficult time overcoming adversity.
*Editor’s note: Jake’s book, “First and Goal: What Football Taught Me About Never Giving Up”, can be purchased on Amazon.
Can you tell us more about how having type 1 diabetes affected your football career experiences and vice versa?
Playing football at a high level is a challenge in itself. Then diabetes adds a level of complexity and discipline on top of that no-one else has to deal with.
Did the training and commitment involved in playing the sport at such a high level translate to more optimal diabetes management?
Absolutely, the amount of physical activity involved in sports like football leaves very little room for error. You can’t take one second off with T1D.
What advice would you give to newly-diagnosed kids and teens who have professional sports aspirations?
Never let diabetes set your limitations. Control your diabetes; don’t let it control you. It all comes down to your willingness to be disciplined in having a proactive approach to their daily routine to match your lifestyle.
Where are you today, and how do you think type 1 diabetes affected your path, overall?
Diabetes taught me very quickly that I had to be very disciplined in everything I do; it ingrained a work ethic and a sense of responsibility that is now part of who I am. That mindset allowed me to chase my dreams to play in the NFL, transition into my career into robotics, and eventually led to an opportunity to work for Locus Robotics as the Director of Customer Success. T1D taught me that through my life that if you work hard and have a thought-out plan, you can accomplish anything you set out to do.
Thank you for taking the time to speak to us, Jake. Your story is sure to be an inspiration to many young athletes with type 1 diabetes. We wish you all the very best in all your future endeavors!
Are you a competitive athlete with type 1 diabetes? What challenges have you faced and what advice would you give?
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