On Friday afternoons in Chapel Hill, N.C., patients at the North Carolina Children’s Hospital receive a group of special guests. Several football players from the University of North Carolina stop by before home games to visit the kids.
Among them is kicker Jay Wooten, a redshirt freshman from Laurinburg, NC, and a former patient of the hospital. Wooten was diagnosed with Type I diabetes as a 15-year-old freshman at Scotland High School, at a time when he lived and breathed football.
Wooten said he knew something was wrong when he began losing a significant amount of weight.
“It was kind of obvious,” Wooten said. “But it was one of those things where you didn’t want to believe it. I just went along with it...and hoped it would clear itself up.”
During a family trip to Columbia, S.C., the weekend of Valentine’s Day, Wooten became so ill his parents took him to an urgent-care center.
“We were staying in a hotel, and I remember I got up all during the night to use the bathroom, and I was drinking all this grape soda,” he said. “The next morning I could barely get up, barely put my shoes on, I was so out of breath and tired.”
Then Wooten entered N.C. Children’s Hospital’s intensive care unit in Chapel Hill.
“They were freaking out because I was in pretty bad shape,” Wooten said. “I remember them weighing me and I weighed 109 pounds. I probably should have weighed maybe 135 or 140. My blood sugar was like 976, and it’s supposed to be around 100. People in comas are like 700 or 800. If I wasn’t an athlete and in good shape, I probably would have been in a coma.”
Living with the disease
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the disease affects 7.8 percent of Americans. Type I diabetes, also known as insulin-dependent or juvenile diabetes is found in 5-10 percent of all diabetics.
Type I is usually diagnosed in children and young adults, and results from the body’s failure to produce insulin.
Type II diabetes is a resistance to insulin that develops later in life, usually due to lifestyle choices such as poor eating habits or obesity.
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that converts sugar (glucose) into energy needed for everyday life. People such as Wooten, with Type I diabetes, control their blood-sugar levels by injecting insulin.
Wooten checks his blood sugar a few times a day by pricking his finger and depositing a drop of his blood onto a meter that reads his blood-sugar level. He now uses an insulin pump to control his blood-sugar level, but when he was first diagnosed he had to inject himself four times a day.
“I’d have to be up at 6 a.m. and get up and give myself a shot and eat, regardless if it was on the weekend,” Wooten said. “I would wake up at 3 a.m. to check my blood sugar and go back to sleep.”
Besides being inconvenient, diabetes puts him at risk for other illnesses and health issues. Diabetics run the risk of having hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and must compensate by making sure their bodies get the right amount of insulin.
The ADA says that blindness, heart disease, neurological problems, kidney disease, skin complications, foot complications, gastroparesis (a problem where the stomach takes too long to empty its contents), and depression can be associated with diabetes.
Despite the risks, Wooten’s life with diabetes has been easier since he switched from injections to the pump before his sophomore year in high school.
“The pump is almost like an artificial pancreas, I guess,” Wooten said.
His pump is hooked up through a tube that enters his body through an infusion site usually on his stomach or hip. The pump has a built-in computer that translates the number of carbohydrates Wooten eats into units of insulin.
After meals, he types in the number of carbohydrates he consumed, and the pump gives him the appropriate amount of insulin to put his blood sugar in the normal range.
Life after diagnosis
Wooten recalls his five days in the North Carolina Children’s Hospital as some of his worst.
“At the time, I didn’t know what diabetes was. I thought it meant you took a pill or something. Medicine’s pretty modern, so I wasn’t that worried about it. I didn’t know what I was in for,” said Wooten.
He said the worst part of his hospital stay was hunger.
“They didn’t let me eat for two days straight and that was probably the worst time of my life. Gosh, I hated that. The first time they let me eat, they had a Wendy’s in the hospital, and I got a big double cheeseburger. That was glorious.”
He said doctors were impressed with his quick recovery.
“I actually got better real quick. They said, ‘You’re the first person we’ve ever seen walking around in intensive care.’”
Wooten said he was thankful for the support of his parents.
“I remember my parents stayed up there with me the whole time. They stayed on these little couches that fold out into beds.”
“We never left his side,” said Jay’s mother, Jerry Wooten. “We were scared to death.”
Wooten’s parents, Jim and Jerry Wooten of Laurinburg, have never missed a game during Wooten’s high school or college kicking career.
“He’s my hero,” said Jerry. “And he’s a double hero to me because he’s conquered not just his diabetes but he’s become so good in his sport, too.”
Jay said, once he realized what he was in for, he wasn’t depressed or angry about his diagnosis, saying “I don’t know why. I guess God was helping me out. I thought, ‘Well, this is one more thing I’ll have to do in the morning.’”
Wooten’s primary concern at the time was whether diabetes would affect his athletic future.
“I think the first thing my dad and I were most worried about was whether I could play sports or not.”
Playing with diabetes
Wooten soon realized that diabetes would not keep him from playing football.
“I remember the first day or two I was back, my dad and I decided I needed to talk to my football coach,” Wooten said. “I went up to him and told him I’d be just as capable of doing everything I needed to do. “
Wooten’s high school coach, Mark Barnes, squelched any worries he may have had and continued to start Wooten on the varsity football team for the next three years.
Wooten’s ability as a place-kicker and punter earned him scholarship offers to play at big-name Division I schools such as Louisiana State University and Clemson University.
Even during the recruitment process, Wooten said his diabetes was never a factor.
“Honestly, nobody was really worried about it," said Wooten. "They weren’t recruiting me for that. They were recruiting me to kick a football. And in my three years of high school, it never affected me.”
Wooten chose to attend North Carolina, where he redshirted his freshman season.
In 2008, he battled Casey Barth for the starting position. Barth is a true freshman out of Laney High School in Wilmington and the younger brother of former Tar Heel kicker Connor Barth.
Wooten steadily helped the Tar Heels achieve victory by converting 4-of-6 field goals and didn't miss on any of his 11 extra-point attempts last season.
In his last three games, Wooten has focused on kickoffs, averaging more than 61 yards and totaling 2,325 yards for the season so far.
And because of Wooten’s high kickoffs, UNC's special teams unit has time to get down the field, holding opponents to an average of 17.7 yards per kickoff return, which lead the ACC.
Wooten said he does not allow his diabetes to affect him on the field.
But even if it did, Wooten’s UNC trainers are prepared to handle the disease. Kevin King, a member of the football staff and one of Wooten’s trainers, said the key is making sure Wooten maintains a normal blood-sugar level.
“The goal in managing diabetes is to keep the blood-glucose levels at or as close to normal levels as possible, without causing hypoglycemia,” King said. “This effort is made more difficult with active people and the demands of athletes.”
King is confident that, through the combined effort of the student-athlete, trainers, team, and coaching staff, diabetics can play and practice just as effectively as non-diabetics.
King explained that trainers follow a diabetes care plan that includes “monitoring blood-glucose levels, employing prevention, recognition and treatment of hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia and insulin administration.”
Plans such as this have proven effective for other diabetic athletes, too.
Adam Morrison of the Charlotte Bobcats, Jay Cutler, quarterback for the Denver Broncos, and golfer Scott Verplank, face the same diabetic challenges as Wooten.
Wooten treats his diabetes as just another part of his life.
“It really doesn’t affect me,” Wooten said. “I really try never to use it as an excuse for anything. And usually, it never is a problem. And even if I don’t feel my best, it’s not like I don’t feel good enough to go to practice or anything.”
Wooten’s teammates agree.
UNC safety Matt Merletti, who roomed with Wooten, said, “Jay doesn’t like people to really know that he has diabetes because he doesn’t want their sympathy. I’ve seen people in restaurants use it to their advantage and get their food quicker or get to the front of a line. Jay never does anything like that; he doesn’t want any special treatment.”
Merletti added that Wooten takes this attitude with him to practice
“In football workouts, he does exactly what everybody else does," said Merletti. "He doesn’t want to be treated any different. He puts in all of the work that we do, whether it’s a good or bad day with his blood sugar.”
Wooten does not take his good fortune and success in athletics for granted.
In addition to his visits to the hospital, Wooten also tutors kids at Morris Grove Elementary School in Chapel Hill on Mondays. Giving back to the community gives Wooten a sense of purpose.
Wooten said he enjoys visiting the children’s hospital. The players bring souvenirs and Tar Heel paraphernalia and talk to the kids.
“We just hang out with them for a little while and tell them we hope they feel better. I mean, there are plenty of guys on the team who have been in the hospital.”
But for Wooten, visiting the children brings back memories.
“I was in the exact same hospital. I was in those same rooms. It’s cool for me because I’m living proof that you can still do whatever you want in life.”
Wooten said he tries to bring hope to the kids.
“I tell everyone I see, ‘I was in one of these same rooms before, and I have diabetes.’ And I think it makes them feel a little better about the situation, and feel like things are going to work out a little better.
“I just tell them, ‘Better days are coming.’”