NFL tight end Mark Andrews wants to inspire others with diabetes both on and off the field

Mark Andrews, giving low-fives to a group of Dexcom employees, is grateful for having a continuous glucose monitor to help him control his blood sugar. (Photo courtesy of Dexcom)

MESA – Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews was not always a football star. When he was young growing up in Scottsdale, soccer was his sport of choice. However, it appeared his sports career might be in jeopardy when he and his family found out that he had type 1 diabetes.

Now, Andrews, a Scottsdale native who played wide receiver at Desert Mountain High School, is one of the NFL’s best tight ends, with three Pro Bowl appearances and a First-Team All-Pro nomination in 2021.

But even when his body started to show symptoms of the disease when he was a child, Andrews always knew he would be fine. He knew from his next soccer game after his diagnosis that he would be fine. His blood sugar was up near 450 mg/dL, which is very high. But despite his parents’ concern, Andrews said he needed to play. And that competitive edge has now helped him achieve success at the NFL level.

“Before the first half ends, I have three goals, kick on my right, left foot, whatever it was,” Andrews said, referring to his first soccer match after receiving the diagnosis. “I think at that time, my parents knew it was like, this isn’t the end of the world. This isn’t going to stop me from doing what I want to do. And that was a big thing for me and my family to see that this disease wasn’t going to stop me and resiliency was going to be the key.”

Andrews was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 9. His father, a urologist, noticed something was wrong during one of Andrews’ soccer games. After his diagnosis, Andrews said that while he didn’t understand fully what it meant, he knew it was something life-changing.

“I remember sitting in the doctor’s patient room,” Andrews said. “(A) doctor comes in after we gave the results and said that I have type 1 diabetes. And this was the first time that I’d seen my dad cry. I saw the emotion of my mom. And I knew that something in my life was going to change forever. This is something that was going to be extremely significant.”

And the significance of his diagnosis was not lost on his family.

“I didn’t even know what diabetes was, to be very honest with you,” said Mark’s mother, Martha Andrews. “My husband’s a physician, he understood it. It hit him very hard. To me, I was just like, ‘OK, what do we need to do? Let’s get the education and get it done.’ I had no concept of what our life was going to be like or all of that was going to be involved with it.”

Type 1 diabetes is a disease that destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. What this means is that a person diagnosed with type 1 diabetes must act as their own pancreas, giving themselves insulin to lower their blood sugar when it gets too high.

“It’s not anything that they did wrong, it’s not anything that could be prevented,” said physician assistant Ashley Cobert, an endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism specialist at Endocrinology Associates in Scottsdale. “So then they have to be managed with multiple daily insulin injections, or with an insulin pump. No pills or other things will work. There’s no diets or anything like that. It just is something they have to continuously monitor. In terms of managing diabetes with insulin, it is a 24/7 job.”

As much as doctors would like to be able to monitor patients all the time, they obviously can’t and often the burden is placed on the family, Cobert said.

So the Andrews family stepped up. Both Mark and Martha said the whole family got involved. The older brothers learned how to administer insulin shots, his sister helped him out at school and even his grandparents got involved. And Andrews, of course, is extremely grateful for his family’s support.

But, as an athlete, monitoring blood sugar can be a lot more difficult, as there is a lot more risk involved. Being active creates a lot more opportunities for blood sugar levels to change. Because of this, it makes an athlete’s job a lot more complex, as there are many outside factors that can influence blood sugar.

“It’s an invisible illness,” Cobert said. “(A)nd the reason that it’s harder than for the athlete, it adds in more variables that go into managing sugars. So if you’re home laying on the couch all day, you don’t have to make as many decisions with managing your sugar because that’s much more stable.

“Whereas an athlete, exercise can increase or decrease your blood sugar depending on the intensity. Being out in the sun, it can increase your or decrease your blood sugar depending on health, getting dehydrated, all of those extra variables that then make managing diabetes that much more complicated.”

There are plenty of other people going through the same struggles that the Andrews family did almost 20 years ago. And Andrews has decided to use his platform as a way to not only help other people with diabetes, but also to inspire them.

“One of the coolest things for me, and it’s become more and more frequent in the last couple of years,” Andrews said, “but usually about every game there’s families that hit up the PR staff and with, you know, kids or someone in the family that has type 1 diabetes and to be able to see them before or after the game and see their sides and to know that I’m able to play and inspire, that’s the biggest influence for me… I love using the podium of playing in the NFL.”

Mark Andrews said a scary situation in college when he woke up to paramedics surrounding him was a big wake-up call. (Photo courtesy of Dexcom)

Mark Andrews said a scary situation in college when he woke up to paramedics surrounding him was a big wake-up call. (Photo courtesy of Dexcom)

Martha Andrews, who has done work with organizations including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, sees value in athletes who get involved with causes they are passionate about.

“It’s really important that these athletes who are so important to children and to adults as well really sharing their struggles, their everyday lives and using that as a platform,” she said. “Mark’s is just a very personal one and, you know, he takes it as a responsibility and a gift that he’s able to do that. It’s really important to him.”

Andrews’ efforts have not gone unnoticed, as he was honored March 28 at the Dexcom facility in Mesa, when the company named one of its manufacturing lines for their G7 continuous glucose monitor after him.

Dexcom is a company that specializes in developing CGMs. They are used to monitor glucose level in the user’s bloodstream, and Dexcom’s CGMs can connect to phones or other smart devices to give the user their readings. Before CGMs became common, Cobert said, every night could often be a risk for those with type 1 diabetes. She said that often “you would poke your finger before bed and hope” that nothing went wrong before waking up the next morning.

Andrews felt honored to be recognized by Dexcom, saying that he and everyone in the diabetes community appreciates the company’s dedication.

Andrews may have been the event’s most famous guest, but there was another guest of honor. Grace Meyers, an 11-year-old Mark Andrews superfan who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes eight years ago, was also at the event.

The two were put in contact after Andrews’ mother met Grace’s mother at an event for the JDRF. Martha was a sponsor for JDRF and their caregiver coffee events, where they meet at someone’s home and discuss their stories dealing with diabetes. Grace was already a huge fan of Andrews, and so Martha and Grace’s mother believed it would be a good idea to put them in touch.

Andews and Grace have since become close, and for National Diabetes Awareness Month and World Diabetes Day in 2022, he asked Grace for a custom patch design for his CGM. The patch is used to hold the CGM in place, and not only did Andrews wear the patch, he also wore cleats with Grace’s design for the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign.

“She’s constantly showing support,” Andrews said of Grace at the Dexcom event. “I always get her videos through my mom and Grace. I want to tell you I appreciate you. You inspire me and just your energy, how you live every day, it’s awesome. So, and thank you for continuing to help people with type 1 diabetes.”

While Andrews was young when he received his diagnosis, he didn’t learn about Dexcom until he was at the University of Oklahoma, where in three years he finished with the sixth most touchdown receptions (22) by any receiver, along with posting the most receiving yards (1,765) by a tight end. He had worn a CGM before in high school, but stopped because he said he didn’t like it. But after a scary situation while in college, he decided he needed to find something that worked for him.

“I think I was about to go home in like a day or two, so schedules changed and I worked out in the morning, took my nap, and passed out in my sleep,” Andrews said. “And the only thing I remember is … being you know hooked up to an IV with a bunch of paramedic people around me. That was a super scary moment you know for me, it’s a wake-up call. It felt like a dream, but that’s when we found Dexcom and it’s been a true game-changer for me, a life-changer to help prevent these situations.”

As a professional athlete, Andrews has to constantly check his blood sugar throughout practices and games to make sure his body is regulated. He mentioned that sometimes he’ll score and his teammates want to celebrate with him, but he’s often busy on the sidelines checking his blood sugar. But he also said that his teammates are very supportive of him and often curious about what having diabetes is like.

“As I got a little older I wanted to show people that and especially show my teammates and friends that show them what I’m going through and what I’ve received from that is that most people are pretty curious,” Andrews said. “They want to know what you’re going through. They want to understand what it is and so I’ve had some incredible teammates that really take an understanding to what I do and how it goes and yeah, I’m extremely blessed.”

Andrews has never been one to let his diabetes slow him down, which is present in his play on the field and his work off the field. Ultimately, he wants to show that even with his condition, he can still go on to achieve great things as an athlete.

“Is it harder? For sure, but can you do it? Absolutely. And it’s thanks to products like Dexcom that make my life easier and achievable to be able to be at the top of my game and to live the lifestyle of, you know, trying to be the best,” he said “That’s been my whole motto of my career, is being the best player I can be, the best teammate, and managing my diabetes the best I can.”

John Busker jahn BUS-ker (he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

John Busker expects to graduate in December 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Busker has interned in media operations with the FOX Corporation.