Emmanuel McPhearson Balances Diabetes and Football
April 5, 2010
By Greg Remington
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. --- Most well-conditioned, highly decorated athletes have an air of invincibility. It's the time of their lives and nothing can take them down.
That all changed for current Lobo Emmanuel McPhearson on Feb. 2, 2007.
McPhearson was sitting in biology class as a 15-year-old sophomore at DeMatha High School in Washington, D.C. "I got really lightheaded," McPhearson explained. "I went to the bathroom. When I came back to class, I kind of dozed off. One of my classmates woke me up. I called my mom and told her I needed to go to the hospital as soon as possible. My older brother picked me up. We met my mom and a pediatrician and I was sent to the hospital immediately."
McPhearson's blood-sugar level was around 850 (normal is between 90-110), or more than nine times normal. Little did McPhearson know that he was dangerously close to going into a diabetic coma, a condition that can be fatal if left untreated.
It took a four-day hospital stay for doctors to lower his blood sugar and get it under control. It was on this day that McPhearson officially became a member of an ever-expanding worldwide club identified as "diabetic."
McPhearson had Type 1 diabetes, meaning he would require insulin injections for the rest of his life or until a cure is found. His life changed in a tiny drop of blood.
Diabetes is a condition in which a person has a high blood sugar (glucose) level as a result of the body either not producing enough insulin, or because body cells do not properly respond to the insulin that is produced. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that enables body cells to absorb glucose, to turn into energy. If the body cells do not absorb the glucose, the glucose accumulates in the blood, leading to various potential medical complications such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, damage to kidneys and eyes and even amputation of limbs.
Diabetes affects more than 24 million Americans. The disease is near epidemic status, increasing at the alarming rate of 1 million a year. That's an astounding 2,800 new cases a day in the U.S. alone. Around the globe, the number is approaching 300 million, or 6.4 percent of the world's adult population.
"No one in my immediate family had it," said McPhearson. "My grandmother had Type 2, but she controlled it with diet."
"It changed my life in a good way and a bad way. When I go out with friends, I have to watch what I eat. Playing football, you have to keep a healthy diet. Being a diabetic will keep you managing that diet 24-7. It has its ups and downs."
Ups and downs. Isn't that really a metaphor for life and sports? You practice over and over in an attempt to perform at a high level. In most sports, failure is more commonplace than success, however, it's how you cope with failure that separates the good ones from the great ones.
Confusion set in for McPhearson after that winter day three years ago. "Why me?" is always the first question asked when a healthy teenager encounters one of life's major obstacles. His goals of playing college football remained, but the diagnosis demanded imminent and dramatic changes in lifestyle.
In addition to school and sports, pricking his finger three to four times a day to check his sugar levels became as routine as brushing his teeth. It remains part of his daily regimen. McPhearson's sturdy body requires four to five insulin shots (injected into the stomach) a day. And, of course, a more regulated diet is mandatory.
"I know the health and food chart like the back of my hand," relayed McPhearson. "I can tell you how many carbs (carbohydrates) and how much fat are in a lot of foods because I have studied that. It's part of the process."
I had a hard time that first summer," remembers McPhearson. "It was tough to manage and control because my sugar levels kept going really low during workouts. I couldn't regulate my insulin, but I was determined to keep playing because I love football so much."
Life is really one big balancing act, but it is magnified even more for diabetics.
McPhearson found that balance, accepted his condition and performed well enough at wide receiver and defensive back in his final two years at DeMatha to draw interest from a number of major college programs. UNM head coach Mike Locksley was thrilled that McPhearson signed with the Lobos in February of 2009.
"Emmanuel comes from a very athletic family," said Locksley, who recruited Emmanuel's older brother Gerrick Jr., to Maryland earlier this decade. "Coming in and playing as a 17-year-old true freshman shows the type of talent and skill set that Emmanuel has."
It is indeed an athletic family.
Emmanuel's father, Gerrick, played defensive back at Boston College in the 1980s and was signed by the New England Patriots as a free agent. His mother, Kim, was on scholarship at UCLA as a sprinter. Older brother, Gerrick Jr., was a cornerback at Maryland from 2002-05, and a 7th-round draft pick of the New York Giants in 2006.
Older brother, Derrick, played football at the University of Illinois, spent 2009 in the minor league system of the Milwaukee Brewers and is now a senior defensive back at Bowie (Md.) State.
Four younger siblings are also heavily involved in sports.
Jeremiah is a senior at DeMatha and is entertaining football offers from a number of schools. Joshua, just a sophomore, is one of the few McPhearsons who plays offense (receiver and running back), and he is already getting looks from several top level BCS programs. Matthew, 14, plays baseball, while Zechariah, 12, likes all sports. Sister Kimberly, 12, plays soccer and basketball.
Now, diabetes be damned, McPhearson is making a name for himself at UNM. The well spoken sophomore-to-be is a strong candidate to be the Lobos' starting left cornerback in 2010.
McPhearson was one of just four true Lobo freshmen to letter in 2009 and it wasn't just token playing time. He played in 11 games with three starts (Utah, BYU, Colorado State), finishing with 26 tackles.
"Emmanuel is a really good athlete," said assistant head coach George Barlow, who oversees the defensive backs. "He is good at a lot of things. He's maturing and that will make him a better player."
In his first career start at nationally ranked Utah, McPhearson proved he could play at the highest level of collegiate football. He had five tackles, an interception and broke up a 3rd-down pass in the end zone to thwart a Utah scoring opportunity.
One of the scarier side effects of diabetes is hypoglycemia, a condition when there is not enough glucose in the body. As McPhearson said, "going low." Symptoms of hypoglycemia are disorientation, shakiness or sweating. Severe hypoglycemia can result in unconsciousness.
While pads, guards and mounds of tape protect all football players, McPhearson adds something to the arsenal for his own protection of any potential hypoglycemic episodes: candy.
During games in high school and in his first season at UNM, McPhearson played with a sockful of candy, kind of like every Saturday was Halloween.
McPhearson can now chuckle about some of his medicinal sweet treats spewing out of his sock during games.
"I remember in a high school all-star game when my Reese's (peanut butter cups) fell out. The same thing happened against BYU last year when Skittles were on the field."
The UNM training staff also stocks plenty of sugar-based products on hand if McPhearson feels low.
"I can always go to Coach (Darrell) Dickey, too, since he is diabetic (Type 2). He always has little pieces of candy in his pocket."
Diabetes does not discriminate. It attacks one and all, including well-known sports stars like Adam Morrison (Gonzaga and NBA player), Jay Cutler (Chicago Bears), Gary Hall Jr. (Olympic gold medal swimmer), Kelli Kuehne (women's professional golfer) and Brandon Morrow (Toronto Blue Jays pitcher).
Diabetics do share a bond, which is a good thing. When Georgetown basketball star Austin Freeman was diagnosed with the disease early last month, one of the first phone calls he received was from McPhearson. Ironically, McPhearson and Freeman were classmates at DeMatha High although Freeman was two years older.
"I talked to him once I found out he was diagnosed," said McPhearson. "I gave him some advice. At first, he said he was going to be out for the rest of the season and I told him he shouldn't be. You should be able to manage it, especially being as good of an athlete as you are. He was back in a few days."
It's all part of the balancing act for Emmanuel McPhearson.
Editor's Note: Greg Remington is UNM's associate athletics director for media relations. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in June of 2003.