We are excited to feature the stories of 12-year-old Wisconsin American Diabetes Association Youth Ambassador Joey Balistrieri and professional football player Jake Byrne on Podder Talk. In this four-part “Tackling Diabetes” series, you will learn about their individual journeys and discover the bond they formed through football and diabetes. In the finale of the series, Jake’s mother, Holly, shares her perspective on Jake’s journey towards becoming a pro football player and role model with diabetes.
Holly with her son Jake Byrne.
Twenty-three years ago, I shredded another tear-soaked tissue while two nurses prepared an IV for my newborn son’s head. Jake was my first born. No one told me babies weren’t supposed to turn yellow. When I finally brought him to the doctor’s office, his bilirubin counts were soaring to dangerous levels. If the numbers didn’t come down, the nurses said he’d need a blood transfusion.
Hearing their concern, I reached for another tissue. Then came the crash! I jumped and nearly choked on my sob. The nurses gasped. We all spun around and stared with dropped jaws at the glass incubator. The door was hanging down.
Jake had busted the door open. The puzzled nurses rushed to incubator. It appeared that he’d squirmed a bit sideways and kicked the door. I guess he wasn’t having any of that blood transfusion stuff. I quit crying. My boy was going to be alright.
It turned out, at that point, Jake’s bilirubin counts began to come down. He didn’t need that transfusion after all.
I considered changing Jake’s name to Bam Bam. He grew up with extraordinary strength, riding a bike without training wheels at age three, doing chin-ups on the swing-set at age four. In kindergarten, he put on a pair of roller blades and took off like he’d been doing it for years. Jake grew at a rapid rate, always head-and-shoulders above most of his classmates.
Then, in Jake’s sophomore year of high school, things changed. While trying to beef up for football season, he kept getting weaker and thinner.
A doctor’s visit delivered a diagnosis of juvenile (type 1) diabetes. As my mom tears began to flow, Jake assured me he’d be okay. I probably should’ve reminded myself of the baby who kicked open the incubator door.
Jake wasn’t about to let diabetes stop him from his dream of earning a football scholarship. He fired questions at the doctor about managing diabetes, especially in regard to playing football. The doctor said that if that he took care of his health, he could still play sports.
With that assurance, Jake accepted his diabetes diagnosis and kept moving forward, going the extra mile in work-outs, preparing for the next game, and all the while, taking excellent care of his health.
I wish I could boast about being the type-one mom who devoted her days and nights to caring for her child, constantly and tirelessly monitoring his blood glucose levels and diet, and keeping after him. It didn’t happen like that. At age sixteen, Jake took a very mature approach to his diabetes; he owned it.
With his attitude, it didn’t take my son long to bust through a door that not long ago would have been closed to a person with diabetes: playing college football.
While Jake was at the University of Wisconsin on football scholarship, one of my proudest mom moments was when Therese Balistrieri contacted me. Therese is mom to Joey, a young boy who, at the time, was recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Joey contacted Jake about playing football with diabetes. Therese complimented me on how impressed she was that Jake took time out of his schedule to mentor Joey.
Jake completed his four-year football scholarship at the University of Wisconsin as a starting tight-end.
Now, my child with type 1 diabetes is kicking down the door of professional football, playing for the Houston Texans. While that in itself is enough to make any mama swell with pride, I’m mostly impressed with my son’s determination, the prudent way he manages his diabetes and especially for his passion to mentor kids with diabetes.
Jake talks about dreams of starting a foundation someday to help kids with diabetes or maybe writing a book about sports and diabetes. With his determination and attitude, he’ll be a success at whatever he does. And along the way, if he runs into any closed doors, I’m pretty sure he’ll kick them open.