University at Albany junior forward Brian Connelly battles basketball opponents two or three times a week. His fight against Type-I diabetes is non-stop.
Trying to keep Type-I diabetes in check is difficult for anyone afflicted with the disease. For a Division I athlete who makes extreme demands on his body, it is even tougher.
“It’s a constant thing,” said the native of Audubon, N.J. “I always have to stay on top of it. I can’t take one day off. It seems like every two hours, I’m taking a needle or pricking my finger [to test blood-sugar levels].”
“Trying to keep blood sugar constant is difficult for any Type-I diabetes patient, given the dietary restrictions that are necessary, and the constant insulin injections,” said UAlbany team physician
Dr. Tony Marinello. “For an athlete like Brian, it’s even more of a challenge. The main difference between Type-I and Type-II
diabetics is that a Type-I diabetic can’t produce any insulin at all, and must take it either through injection or through a pump. Type-II diabetics do produce adequate insulin, but they are usually overweight, and need some help with medication.
“The other main difference is that Type-I diabetics are the only ones that usually have to be concerned with low blood-sugar levels. Athletes like Brian are at risk when they exert themselves.”
Connelly, who is 6-foot-8 and a chiseled 220 pounds, takes at least two injections of insulin every day, and often requires three.
“I’ve got the long-lasting insulin that lasts throughout the day, and helps keep me on an even keel,” he said. “I take it once in the morning and once at about 5 or 6 p.m. But I’ve also got to take a fast-acting shot from time to time.
“The amount of activity I have also determines how much insulin I need. For me, I can use my level of activity, like lifting weights or basketball practice, as a means of controlling my blood-sugar levels. But it takes a long time to figure out what’s the right mix. I’m still figuring it out to this day.”
Ultimately, Connelly understands that it’s his responsibility to control the disease, but he does get plenty of help from the UAlbany athletic staff.
“Obviously, I’ve got to do most of the care myself, but our trainer, Jay Geiger, is always there with Gatorade if I need it. He’s always asking me how I’m doing. Plus, the coaching staff is always monitoring my situations. When we’re running sprints, they are always asking me how I’m doing. And they always order low-sugar, healthy foods for me when we’re on the road.”
Most of the time, Connelly is in complete control during games, but he remembers one game when his diabetes acted up while he was playing.
“The one situation that comes to mind was when we were playing at Harvard last year. It’s the only upset I’ve had during a game. I had low blood sugar, and it was terrible timing. We were making a big comeback. We were down by 13 or something like that, and we tied the game with two minutes left. All of a sudden, I got weak. You start to sweat more, and your legs feel like rubber. You also start to shake a little. If you keep going, you could black out. In severe cases, you could even die.
“I figured out what was happening during a timeout. Since we were staging a comeback, I didn’t want to come out, but the trainer went and got a Snickers bar for me. It stinks having to come out of the game when everything is on the line, but I had to do it.”
Connelly discovered he had
diabetes when he was a senior in high school.
“My father always kept track of me, because he had diabetes himself,” Connelly said. “But since I was an athlete, I didn’t think it would be a big concern, and I didn’t really think I would ever get it. I always kept in good shape, and ate right. A month before my doctor confirmed it, my father noticed some symptoms, and he made an appointment with the doctor for me right away. But the first thing the doctor told me was that it shouldn’t affect my athletic career, as long as I learned to take care of the disease. That made me feel better.”
Connelly said treating the disease was easier in high school.
“You didn’t work as hard on conditioning in high school as you do at college. In college, you reach a whole different level of training. It’s a lot more difficult,” he said. “For example, when we lift weights, which is about two or three times a week, I take a protein supplement before and after lifting. There are a lot of carbs in it, but it’s low sugar. The problem is, the carbs eventually turn into sugar. I can usually burn off those carbs during my lifts, but when we have practice right after, I have to make some adjustments.”
Connelly is one of the key players for the 9-9 Great Danes, who, at 4-2, are in a three-way tie for first place with Binghamton and the University of Maryland Baltimore County in the America East Conference.
He is the team’s second-leading scorer at 10.1 points per game, and is third in rebounding at 5.7 rpg. He leads the Danes in offensive rebounds with 34.
“One of the things that has helped me as a first-time starter this year is that I have more confidence, in general,” he said. “I have the confidence in my ability, and I know that I can put the diabetes aside.”