From Super Bowl champ to patient ambassador — Kendall Simmons on his battle with diabetes
His next chapter includes educating others about how to live with the disease
Kendall Simmons rarely keeps gifts from fans. But one time, the retired lineman and two-time Super Bowl champ made an exception. He received a bag of plain M&M’s with a message of encouragement.
“An 8-year-old kid who wore the same number as me [No. 73] sent it in case I needed energy or my sugar got low,” Simmons said. “I still have that same pack of M&M’s today.”
The gift, from a child he never knew was paying attention to his struggle, is a reminder that his journey means a lot to others and his story needs to be heard.
Simmons, 39, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2003 when he was 23 and going into his second season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since retiring from the NFL in 2011, he travels around the country as a paid patient ambassador for pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.
“I got the call from my agent about the opportunity, and I’ve been part of the team since,” Simmons said.
He makes dozens of appearances annually for Novo Nordisk, spreading a message of hope to those living with diabetes and encouraging others to familiarize themselves with diabetes risk factors.
Usually donning custom suits and his larger-than-life Super Bowl ring, he masks his glucose monitor.
“I’m an introvert,” Simmons said. “But I’ve learned to share my story. I was nervous my first time, but the Novo Nordisk team and the doctors on the panel with me encouraged me every step of the way.”
Simmons was raised in Ripley, Mississippi, where Southern cuisine was part of his daily menu. He grew up around his grandmother, who had Type 2 diabetes and often kept peppermint candy around her home, which he now knows was to maintain her sugar levels when they got a little low.
“Back then we called it ‘the sugar,’ ” he said.
When Simmons was first diagnosed, it was an eye-opening experience. He’d just finished his first season with the Steelers.
“I’d lost more than 45 pounds,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling like myself. I was tired and I had dry mouth, all symptoms of diabetes. I was working out twice a day and thought I was just overdoing it.”
Simmons made it to Pittsburgh and told his trainer, John Norwig, about his symptoms. The team doctor tested his blood sugar and he was told he may have diabetes. He was sent to the emergency room immediately.
He had a dangerously high blood sugar level of more than 1,000. A normal fasting (no food for eight hours) blood sugar level is between 70 and 99. A normal blood sugar level two hours after eating is less than 140. He lost his eyesight for one week. Facing a diabetic coma, he was given IV fluids to lower his blood sugar levels.
“I didn’t understand what that meant at the time,” Simmons said. “Growing up in some families, it’s not a topic that is always discussed. I know I had a long road ahead of me, and I was up for the challenge.”
Simmons dealt with the emotional shock of his diagnosis and anxiety surrounding the illness. As a lineman, maintaining a healthy weight of 315 pounds was ideal. He was also battle-tested. He’s thankful to the team for supporting him and providing resources to help him.
“They were great,” Simmons said. “They’d dealt with players before me that had diabetes, so they knew what I needed.”
Simmons was selected in the first round of the 2002 NFL draft by the Steelers. He endured 14 surgeries for football-related injuries during his college and pro careers. Released by the Steelers in 2009, he spent time with the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills until he realized it was time to leave the game. He played in 70 games and two Super Bowls (2006 and 2009) while balancing his Type 1 diabetes, checking his sugar levels eight to 10 times per game and taking insulin shots.
Transitioning off the field was one of the hardest decisions Simmons ever made. He and his wife, Celesta, now live in Auburn, Alabama, and they actively involve their four children in meal planning and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
“When you’re a professional football player, you have a team of people looking after you,” he said. “The Steelers organization was wonderful, and they made sure I had what I needed to control my diabetes. When it’s all over, you have to figure out your new life and still maintain a healthy lifestyle. I work out every day and I watch what I eat.”
Simmons hits the treadmill or jumps rope for about 30 to 45 minutes several times throughout a typical week and bicycles 75 miles.
He earned a degree in graphic design in three years before heading to the league and returned for a short stint as a coach at Auburn University.
Since the Novo Nordisk opportunity, he’s found solace in faith, family and health. He plans to stay with the company for “as long as they will have me.”
“This opportunity is a blessing for me,” Simmons said. “If I can help one person change their perspective and understand their risk factors, I feel good.”