When his doctor first informed him that he had Type 1 diabetes, Will Vergantino’s mind began to race. In a state of shock, tears began to fill his eyes as he choked up.
Vergantino, who was 13 years old when diagnosed in 2015, did not know much about the disease at the time. His mom took him to the doctor after they noticed he lost weight.
Upon hearing the diagnosis, Vergantino's first instinct was to ask the doctor if he would still be able to play sports. The Lumberton, New Jersey, native played travel baseball at the time and dreamed of playing in college and beyond.
For a moment, Vergantino thought his dream had vanished; however, the doctor assured him that he would be able to continue playing competitive baseball with some alterations to his routine and lifestyle.
“That’s all I needed to hear,” Vergantino said.
Seven years after his diagnosis, Vergantino is a redshirt sophomore infielder on the Elon University baseball team. While he has achieved his goal of playing for a Division I program, Vergantino said he is always thinking about diabetes.
“I would love not to have diabetes, for sure. That would obviously be the easy answer, but I do think it's made me a stronger person,” Vergantino said. “In some aspects, I think it has helped me. It's made me more thoughtful and aware of what I'm putting in my body and how what I do affects my overall health.”
Diabetes is a chronic disorder in which the pancreas no longer produces insulin, which causes the level of sugar in one’s blood to fluctuate outside of the normal range. There are two types of diabetes: Type 1 and 2. Type 2 diabetes normally appears later in life and is mainly lifestyle-related. Risk factors for developing Type 2 diabetes include being overweight and a lack of physical activity. Type 1, on the other hand, is a genetic condition that often shows up earlier in life.
Type 2 diabetics can produce insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas that regulates the amount of sugar in the blood, but their bodies cannot use it effectively. Type 1 diabetics cannot produce insulin because their immune systems attack and destroy the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Only 5 to 10% of diabetics are Type 1.
Vergantino is one of more than 1.45 million Americans and 8.7 million people worldwide living with Type 1 diabetes, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
All diabetics must manage their blood sugar levels to keep them in a healthy range. For Type 1 diabetics, a healthy blood sugar range before meals is between 80 and 130 milligrams/deciliter . Blood sugar levels should reach no higher than 180 mg/dL within two hours after eating. For non-diabetics, a normal pre-meal blood sugar range is between 70 and 80 mg/DL and levels should not exceed 140 mg/DL after meals.
If a diabetic’s blood sugar levels are too high, they can inject insulin into their blood, which lowers the amount of sugar in the bloodstream. Other ways to manage blood sugar levels include eating a healthy diet, eating at regular times without skipping meals and maintaining a healthy weight.
The severity of effects from having low or high blood sugar differ for all diabetics, but as Vergantino explained, there are consequences for diabetics when their blood sugar levels are outside of the healthy range.
“If they’re way too high, you're going to feel sluggish. Your eyesight's going to be off. You're going to kind of feel like you're drunk in some way. You feel horrible,” Vergantino said. “If you're low, you start shaking, you start sweating. For me personally, I see two dots in the peripheral of my eyes every time that happens. If you ever have seen a TV screen when it goes fuzzy, that’s what it’s like. You're a whole different person.”
While there is no definitive data available to determine how many college athletes currently compete with the disorder, a study by Albright et al. found that the prevalence rate of Type 1 diabetes among former college athletes is 0.57%.
Diabetes can negatively impact an athlete’s performance, as the side effects of high and low blood sugar make it difficult to concentrate and physically function at a high level — such as swinging a baseball bat.
Tyler Moos, an athletic trainer for Elon, said the disease is an additional stressor college athletes must worry about on top of what their peer athletes must endure.
“It's another thing that you have to force yourself to control,” Moos said. “It's hard enough to get in a batter's box and be able to hit a mid 80s, 90 mph fastball or curveball. At the same point, if your blood sugar's off and your reaction time is slowed slightly, then it makes it that much harder.”
Type 1 diabetes is most often diagnosed between the ages of 10 to 14, as was the case for Vergantino, who had to adjust his lifestyle at age 13 to continue playing baseball. Yet, the disorder can also be diagnosed much earlier or later.
Lily Anderson has few memories of life before her Type 1 diabetes diagnosis. In 1994, Anderson received her diagnosis at 3 years old. Anderson went on to play Division I golf at Illinois State University but was hesitant to talk about her condition because of her status as an athlete.
“I did not feel comfortable telling people that I had diabetes,” Anderson said. “It was almost like I was ashamed of it because I thought, especially in athletics, if somebody sees you taking a shot, they’re automatically going to think it's steroids. But it was also me kind of trying to hide the disease from people and wanting to be the cool athlete that didn’t have the disease.”
Anderson now works at JDRF, the world’s largest Type 1 diabetes research funder. For her, being prepared to swiftly deal with blood sugar fluctuations prior to playing in competitive games is crucial.
“Throughout an athlete's career, they're going to have low blood sugar, and their blood sugar is going to be too high. It's bound to happen,” Anderson said. “You need to have conversations to come up with a plan for these situations. Don’t be afraid to bring it up before the season starts.”
Moos said at Elon, plans for dealing with Type 1 diabetes as an athlete vary depending on what sport they play. In a sport like baseball or softball, there is downtime in between every inning for a player to assess their levels. In sports like basketball or hockey, play is continuous with few gaps for an athlete to check their levels.
While diabetes is a manageable condition, it is also the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S., as over 100,000 people died in 2021 from Type 1 and 2 diabetes. When handled correctly, diabetes does not prevent people from living a normal life or keep athletes from competing at a high level.
“It is a very manageable thing,” Moos said. “The hardest aspect of being a college athlete with it is it's just another thing you have to manage. And then on top of that, trying to figure out where you sit best, what level of blood sugar, what level of hydration, what level of all those things do you need to be at to perform the best takes a lot of refinement.”
Monitoring diabetes is an around the clock job. Every morning, Vergantino checks his blood sugar levels as soon as he wakes up. If his level is too high, he administers a shot of insulin to his leg to bring the level down. 15 minutes prior to eating every meal, Vergantino gives himself another shot of insulin. For each of these shots, he must calculate the amount of carbohydrates he will eat to determine how much insulin he needs. He said he usually gives himself between five to seven insulin shots per day.
Vergantino lives off campus with three of his teammates, one of whom is junior Connor Offshack. The two have lived together for the last two years and are also travel mates when the team goes on the road. Offshack first found out Vergantino was a diabetic when he visited his dorm room during their freshman year.
“There were about 5,000 needle caps just laying around his room,” Offshack said. “When I first met him, I would always ask him like, ‘Dude, doesn't that hurt?’"
Vergantino has an app on his phone that connects directly to his glucose meter, a device that measures the amount of sugar in his blood. The app provides him with a live read of his blood sugar level at any given time and sends him alerts if it goes out of range.. Additionally, both his mom and dad in New Jersey receive these alerts and can contact him if his levels are reaching dangerous levels and he does not notice.
While he checks his level periodically throughout the day, he said he looks at it every 10 to 15 minutes during practices or games to make sure he is within a stable range. When his levels get too high or too low, he communicates it to coaches and pulls himself from the field to get his levels back under control.
Vergantino said he learned to manage the disease by himself and does not rely on Elon’s coaches or athletic trainers to help him with his daily routines
“All my coaches and training staff have an understanding of diabetes and how to take care of it, and they’re empathetic if I’m having a situation where I have to treat it,” Vergantino said. “But it’s on me to take care of that. I never wanted that to be anybody else’s responsibility. It’s my job. It’s my issue that I have to deal with, and I try to take care of it on my end rather than putting it on them.”
Elon baseball head coach Mike Kennedy is entering his 27th season as a Division I baseball coach — both in his career and at Elon. He said he has coached just two players with diabetes in that time – Vergantino and Justin Needles, a sophomore who transferred to the University of North Carolina-Asheville last spring.
While Kennedy and his staff scouted and recruited Vergantino in high school, they were unaware he was a diabetic. In fact, they did not find out about his condition until they discovered it in the paperwork from his first physical at Elon.
Kennedy said Vergantino rarely pulled himself off the field during practices or games when his levels began to fluctuate, as he did not want to lose chances for playing time. After working with him for over two years, Kennedy said he and his assistant coaches can now recognize when Vergantino’s levels are fluctuating, in which case they make sure he takes the necessary steps to deal with it safely.
“I think he's comfortable with us, and he knows that we don't look at it as a crutch or anything that's going to impact what he does, as long as he gets healthy and he's ready to go, then he's going to be on the field,” Kennedy said. “I think he appreciates that and knows that there's no pressure for him to have to be out there. If he needs a break, he gets his break and he knows that and he probably functions a lot better because of it.”
According to Kennedy, Vergantino is one of Elon’s best defensive infielders. He said he loves Vergantino’s toughness and appreciates that he is willing to lead by example — even with his condition.
“Here's a kid who has diabetes, and you would think he would try to take care of his body, but on the field, he's reckless, and I love it,” Kennedy said. “He lays out, he dives all over the place. He gets dirty. He's on the ground more than any infielder we have, and that rubs off on others. It really catches our eye that this kid's willing to do whatever it takes. And that's what I love about him.”
Kennedy said it is important for athletes with diabetes to communicate their condition and their needs to the coaching and training staff so they can help be a support system.
“Let's try to work together on trying to figure out how we can get you in the best place to where you can do this and not cover it up and not try to work around it and put yourself in a worse position. Let’s take care of it and let's get you to be the best guy you can be,” Kennedy said. “But if you don't do that and you try to do some things and don't make us aware of it, it probably is going to impede how well you do and put you in a bad place and it's not worth that. We can make it work.”
Upon receiving his diabetes diagnosis, Vergantino had to adjust his diet to eat more healthy foods. While he has adapted his diet over time, it was not an easy sacrifice for the self-described food lover to make in the beginning.
“I love cheeseburgers and I love fries, but I had to realize that was going to be a treat meal for me,” Vergantino said. “I had to clean the foods that I'm eating and make a lot cleaner diet, and as a result, honestly, it's just made me feel like I'm a healthier person in general. The way I eat now is the way I think a lot of people should eat.”
While he has given up many of his old eating habits, Vergantino keeps candy in the dugout to manage his blood sugar level during games. Skittles have long been his candy of choice, and he eats them whenever he sees his levels dipping below where he wants them.
“They have a ton of sugar in them, and they pack a punch when you eat them. So if my sugar ever went low, I'd just start pounding Skittles, throwing handfuls back,” Vergantino said. “I’d run out in the field with a glob of Skittles in my mouth, but they boost your sugar up and made me feel better in the moment.”
While some days are better than others for Vergantino, Offshack said Vergantino has become better at staying on top of his levels and does not bring it up as much as he did during his freshman year.
“He doesn't really complain about it at all. It's more of a reality, and he knows that,” Offshack said. “The days that it is hard for him, we all try to help him in the house. He tends to be a little moody when that happens, so it's kind of hard to deal with him. But at the same time, we understand where he is coming from and what he's going through, so we really just do anything to help out.”
Offshack recalled several instances of Vergantino’s levels falling out of the desired range when his phone was either dead or turned off. Because his parents get notifications when his levels fluctuate, they reach out to his roommates to alert their son when they cannot get a hold of him.
“There have been numerous scenarios when his phone has died and his parents have called us,” Offshack said. “They call us, and then we have to go in his room, knock down the door, wake him up and tell him just to eat some sugar.”
Diabetes has never been an excuse for Vergantino. Offshack said if you did not know Vergantino has diabetes, you would never know it with how he carries himself.
“Verg loves baseball. He wouldn’t do it if he didn’t love it, especially with the condition that he has,” Offshack said. "I respect that he really works hard, and he always brings a smile and a certain type of energy to the team that most people can’t.”
Future of diabetes in athletics
Technology has transformed the diabetes landscape. While Anderson played golf at Illinois State in the early 2010s, she could not afford a way to monitor the changes in her blood sugar level as they were happening. The only way for her to check her levels was to prick her finger to test her blood, which was not something she could do during a round of golf.
“It was terrifying because you’re out on the golf course and all of the sudden you start to feel weird, and you’re just like, ‘What do I do right now?’” Anderson said.
Technology like Vergantino's allows diabetics to monitor their blood sugar levels 24/7.
Anderson said she has to deal with “diabetes burnout” as a college athlete, in which she gets overwhelmed by having to manage the disease and stops trying to control her levels. Anderson said she stopped taking the disease seriously in college and tried to manage it on her own, which she admits was a mistake.
“I needed support, but I didn’t know how to ask for it,” Anderson said. “There were so many things going on and it just wasn’t a priority. It was just a mess.”
Anderson said it is much easier for athletes to find support systems to help deal with the stress that comes with diabetes, as social media and online message boards have allowed diabetic athletes to connect and create a community. She said she wishes these resources were more prevalent when she was a college athlete, as she believes it may have helped her find people who could help her with what she was going through.
While Vergantino has not experienced diabetes burnout to the extent Anderson did, he recalls several moments where he has broken down out of frustration when he has been unable to control his levels and keep them where he needs them to be.
“Sometimes, that does get to me, and it can be frustrating for sure,” Vergantino said. “Honestly, I always go back to what I've gone to since I was a little kid and when I first got diagnosed – there's always somebody out there that's got it worse. So, if I'm complaining about diabetes when I can still eat whatever I want and do whatever I want and somebody else can't even walk, it's like, all right, you're being a little, little selfish here.”
In Anderson’s opinion, coaches and athletic directors at the college level need to be better about communicating with athletes with diabetes to make sure they can provide them the resources they need and be there to support them when they must take breaks. For her, an accepting environment where athletes with diabetes can be comfortable to share it and manage it with the help of the team’s athletic staff is crucial.
“Everyone handles their diabetes a little bit differently, so having that initial conversation with them to discuss how they can best manage the disease without singling them out is important,” Anderson said.
Several notable professional athletes have made their battle with diabetes public in recent years. Among notable athletes with diabetes include MLB player Adam Duvall, Indycar driver Charlie Kimball and NHL player Max Domi. As a kid, Vergantino did not have any specific athletes or role models with diabetes he looked up to. But, he hopes to serve as inspiration for young athletes dealing with diabetes.
“At some points, I had my doubts. Realizing that nothing is actually holding you back and you’ve just got to go at it in a smart way, in a smart manner, I would've loved to hear that from somebody older in my position as a kid,” Vergantino said. “It would've given me such a boost of energy and hope, that like, hey, this is really possible. I would love to be that inspiration.”