How TE Mark Andrews Overcame Near-Death Experience to Shine for Oklahoma

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterSeptember 3, 2015

Oklahoma wide receiver Mark Andrews (81) is tackled by Oklahoma cornerback Tito Windham (3) during the annual Red White spring college football scrimmage in Norman, Okla., Saturday, April 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

Before he would become a spring-game sensation in April, before he would be a bona fide member of the offensive two-deep depth chart, Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews needed to be saved.

At 6'6" and 247 pounds, Andrews is a 19-year-old in a man's body—a body that had gone completely limp one afternoon last September. He lay on his bed, his eyes, usually full of expression and light, fixated straight ahead, yet not on anything at all. His body was motionless, an immovable mass.

He was lifeless.

That's 247 pounds of dead weight, which someone had to prop up in his dorm room in Headington Hall. Someone had to act fast in order to boost his glucose levels. Someone had to call the paramedics, all while relaying the situation on the phone in real time with Andrews' mother. Someone had to.

How was Andrews even alive?

"Wesley," Andrews said, referring to Sooners long snapper and roommate Wesley Horky. "He saved my life."

The Call

"It was a Thursday during the bye week. Those Thursday practices always throw you off," Horky said.

The Sooners normally practiced from 3:30-5:45 p.m. during the season. On bye weeks, like the one following a 45-33 win in Morgantown on Sept. 20, they have Thursday morning practices. It's not a huge difference, but it can be enough to disrupt a routine.

Andrews is a Type 1 diabetic. Unlike Type 2 diabetes, Type 1 is a genetic disorder in which the body does not produce insulin on its own. A routine is critical for him. His life every day is a math project: Count carbs, take insulin and never deviate. Even then, Type 1 is a condition of instability, especially for an athlete like Andrews, for whom there can be extreme spikes and lows in glucose levels. A mistake—something as simple as miscalculating the amount of medicine needed—can result in discomfort.

Or it can be much, much worse.

That Thursday afternoon following practice, Horky called from across the suite-style dorm to see if Andrews wanted to grab dinner before his flight back to his hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona.

"Mark?"

There was no response.

Horky entered Andrews' room. One more time, he called out.

"Mark?"

Lying on his bed, his eyes wide-open and staring at the ceiling, was Andrews. He was in a state of hypoglycemia, a severe low in blood sugar levels, and was unresponsive.

"I was scared," Horky said.

"Mark's parents [Paul and Martha Andrews] told my family and I about his condition," Horky continued, "but I've never dealt with diabetes before." It's normally not an issue. Andrews is militant about his glucose levels. No one needs to remind him what to do or when to do it. But even the most dedicated Type 1s understand that their condition is unpredictable.

"There's no rhyme or reason to it, that's the thing about Type 1 diabetes," Martha said. "You have to ask yourself, 'What did you do today that you didn't do before?'"

No one's sure if Andrews worked out too hard, took too much medication after eating or whether it was the arbitrary nature of being Type 1. Horky didn't know how long Andrews had been unresponsive, either.

Scared, but calm, Horky called Martha. "I don't know what's going on," she recalled him saying, "but I can't get Mark to wake up."

The pit in Martha's stomach returned. She had dealt with her son's hypoglycemia before, but never over the phone from nearly 1,000 miles away. Her role was instructional.

Get sugar in Mark's system, she thought. He didn't even have to chew. Just get the sugar to mix with his saliva.

The Andrews family.
The Andrews family.Credit: Martha Andrews

"Are his fruit chews nearby?" she asked.

Horky checked. "Yes."

"See if he'll chew them."

Listed on his bio page as 6'1" and 220 pounds, Horky isn't that much smaller than Andrews. That doesn't make lifting him up any easier. "He's a big kid," Horky said.

There was Horky, on the phone while holding up his roommate, his teammate, his friend, shoving fruit chews in his mouth. "He wasn't chewing, though," Horky said. "He wasn't saying anything."

He was still staring straight ahead.

This went on for minutes, 10-15 by both accounts. That's 10-15 minutes that undoubtedly felt like hours. Martha instructed Horky to go across the hall, find someone and get help, but he refused. "I'm not leaving Mark," he said.

Still, the paramedics had to be called. Horky dialed 911, unsure of how to describe what was happening, while Martha notified OU's medical training staff. "They do an amazing job of taking care of Mark," she said.

A few minutes later, approaching sirens could be heard in the distance. A full team of paramedics plus the Sooners training staff packed the room right around the time Andrews started to come to. The sugar dose worked.

He doesn't remember what happened, but Andrews knows one thing: He was fortunate.

Martha was strong and focused then. She needed to be. This time was different, though. Speaking about it now nine months later, she did what any parent would do.

She wept.

The Battle Inside His Body

Andrews was diagnosed with Type 1 when he was just nine years old. Paul, a urologic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, didn't need to be a doctor to know something was wrong. His youngest son was urinating frequently, a telltale sign of diabetes.

At the time of his diagnosis, Andrews' blood sugar was 300 mg/dL; a normal blood sugar reading for fasting children is about 100 mg/dL. The Andrews family was heartbroken. "The news was unexpected," Andrews said. "I thought, 'Is this going to affect my life forever?'"

Andrews never got down on himself, though. His life was still his life, and he was going to make the best of it. It would just be different.

"He never asked, 'Why me?'" Martha said.

"He has an inner strength," Paul added. "He never cried.

"I did. I cried."

Andrews' willingness to battle diabetes comes from one of his most prominent traits: competitiveness. In every facet of his life—sports, academics or in health—Andrews wants to win.

"He wants those glucose levels to be right like he wants to score points in a basketball game," Paul said.

It's not always that simple, of course. Paul recalled one night when Mark woke up disoriented with extremely low glucose levels. There's never a schedule for these setbacks, after all. The paramedics had to be called, and it took a while before Mark came to.

But that evening, Mark, probably against better judgement, attended high school football practice. Afterward, the team ran gassers. According to Paul, Mark won every single one.

The whole situation sounds foreign and life-altering, and make no mistake—it is. There's a strong support system in place, Andrews said. OU's coaching staff always make sure he has the attention of the athletic trainers. His teammates are curious about his Type 1, though only his closest friends on the team actually know about last September.

But the reality is that others make more of Andrews' condition than he will ever make of it himself. Rather, he chooses to make his life about helping others. He's volunteered for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's charity walks and has mentored others who have Type 1.

Andrews (left) and Hannon (right).
Andrews (left) and Hannon (right).Credit: Heidi Hannon

People like Desert Ridge High School offensive lineman Nick Hannon.

When Hannon was diagnosed with Type 1 two years ago, he had two questions for his doctor: Could he still play football, and could he still eat cheeseburgers? His mother, Heidi, had more pressing questions. Chiefly, could her son continue to live his life as normally as possible?

Searching for answers, Heidi Googled "Arizona High School Football + Type 1 Diabetes." Up popped Andrews on the first page. Heidi coordinated a chance for Nick to meet Mark in person before practice one afternoon and he advised Hannon on how to take control of his glucose levels during games. Don't be afraid to get tested often, he said, and make sure blood sugar levels stay in between 100-200 mg/dL.

For the Andrews and Hannon families, however, talking is as much about therapy as it is about information.

"I just try to help families who need encouragement," Andrews said. "But then I'm getting help, too, because they know what I'm going through."

That season, in 2013, Desert Ridge and Desert Mountain played twice, with Hannon's Jaguars winning both games. On one occasion when Andrews was playing defensive end, Hannon lined up right across from him.

So who won the one-on-one battle?

"The play was to the opposite side, so I pushed him and ran to the second level," said Hannon, who is 6'3" and 250 pounds this year as a senior, "but I feel like he would have done some damage."

Andrews laughed, probably because Hannon's opinion struck him as an honest one. But he replied modestly.

"I think I would have given him a run for his money."

The Athlete

There is seemingly nothing that can stop Andrews from playing sports—all of them. He's a pure athlete in body and mind.

He always has been. He was described by his father as a "6'6" kid who can run a 4.6 (40-yard dash)." The Andrews family is filled with those types of athletes. Paul himself was a Texas high school football player who went to college at SMU. Mark's three older siblings—Jack, Charlie and Annie—were competitive soccer players.

So too was Mark, who began playing soccer at around five years old. As a striker, his game was unique. Usually, his parents said, Andrews was the tallest kid on the field.

Andrews with Sereno Soccer Club.
Andrews with Sereno Soccer Club.Credit: Martha Andrews

Great strikers— like Wayne Rooney—aren't generally tall. It's a position that requires impeccable ball-handling skills, elusiveness and speed. Strikers are scorers but also targets for aggressive defense and slide tackles. It's not a position suited for clumsy giants. Yet Andrews played striker for club teams like Sereno Soccer Club all the way up until high school. 

In a family of tall children, Mark was the tallest. By the time he arrived at Desert Mountain High School, he was 6'4", according to his high school football coach, Tony Tabor. "He already looked like an adult," Tabor said.

It was only then as a freshman in high school that Andrews started playing football. For years, it was soccer, basketball (in which he played power forward) and baseball. He was always practicing. It never felt like there were enough days in the year for him to get it all in.

So why football, all of a sudden?

He was influenced in part by his second-oldest brother, Charlie, who in addition to playing soccer was a successful football player with college offers. Additionally, he wanted to play with longtime friend Kyle Allen, currently the starting quarterback at Texas A&M.

Football came naturally for Andrews. He played instantly as a freshman, and he recorded 81 catches for 1,590 yards and 22 touchdowns as a junior in 2012In addition, he served as the team's punter and place-kicker. His soccer skills would come in handy after all.

In many ways, soccer was an important prerequisite for football because it taught him the concept of passing lanes and zone coverage. Andrews naturally understands those concepts in the same way others instinctively understand math. It wasn't just soccer, though. Basketball not only taught him many of those same concepts but also how to use his body to create separation.

Knowing how to get open on offense transcends all team sports. Basketball, football and soccer are all similar in that regard. But there was one thing that made football different enough to pique Andrews' interest.

"Mark liked football because he got a chance to hit someone," Paul said. "In soccer, he would get carded before someone else. In football, he thought, 'Now I'm going to play a sport where I can hit you and not get in trouble.'"

Mark Andrews, as a kicker for Desert Mountain High School.
Mark Andrews, as a kicker for Desert Mountain High School.Credit: Martha Andrews

This distinction is important. There are plenty of athletes—more than anyone can count—who can catch a ball and avoid contact. It takes a different mentality to actively seek out that contact. It's a mentality that can't really be conditioned, either, because it requires a certain breed of player more than it requires a certain kind of coach.

It's the kind of breed that makes a great tight end.

Accepting Change

That's the thing: Andrews wasn't supposed to be a tight end. He was adamant about it, in fact, as a 4-star wide receiver recruit. In an August 2013 article, Richard Obert of the Arizona Republic claimed Andrews verbally committed to Oklahoma in part because he was being recruited as a wide receiver and not a tight end (Mark's oldest brother, Jack, is a med student at OU, which was another factor in his decision).

Credit: Martha Andrews

Shortly into his redshirt season, though, OU's coaching staff approached Andrews about making the full-time transition away from receiver.

Redshirting was demoralizing enough, Andrews explained. "It's difficult coming out of high school and thinking you're going to play again." Now he was going to switch positions.

However, it turned out to be a necessity for Andrews to physically and mentally mature. Being the team player that he is, and knowing it was his best path to the next level, Andrews agreed.

There is upside in Andrews' game at tight end—a lot of it. It was on display in the Sooners' spring game on April 11. He caught two passes for 56 yards, one of which was highlight-reel material: a long pass down the middle of the field. At around the 25-yard line, Andrews evaded two tackles and carried Sooners cornerback Tito Windham down to inside the 10.

The crowd inside Memorial Stadium erupted in delight. This was Andrews' defining moment.

He was euphoric, while simultaneously overcome with a sense of relief—the type of feeling that culminates from a year of hard work and no playing time to show for it.

That could change in 2015. The big-bodied Andrews has already drawn comparisons to ex-Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro by former Red Raiders quarterback (and current OU signal-caller) Baker Mayfield. At the very least, Andrews could be the complementary weapon to receiver Sterling Shepard that the Sooners sorely missed in their receiving unit in 2014.

First-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley loves the possibility of using Andrews as a sixth offensive lineman as well as a fifth wide receiver. Having that combination is a luxury. The lack of a good tight end doesn't hurt an offense, Riley explained, but having one does help present mismatches.

It's a high ceiling for someone who's still learning the position.

"A lot of this is really foreign," Andrews said. "It's like a different game to me."

It's Not About Him

Martha made a point that being diabetic is only part of her son's life and not his defining characteristic. This is 100 percent true, but it'd be wrong to omit the fact he's fought an unenviable battle. Andrews has never been hospitalized for his condition, but there have been close calls.

He overcame them—not for his own sake, but for others. That's how he chooses to lead his life. It's not about him. It never was.

The world, you see, is not so bad as long as you know there are people out there who want to help. "Being an athlete puts you on a pedestal," Paul said. "For Mark, he can use his status as an athlete to help others.

"That awareness of other people makes you a better teammate."

It's not a forced act of charity. Andrews is, by all accounts, someone who genuinely cares about others, whether it's his family, his friends, his teammates or someone he just met. When Paul wanted Mark to play quarterback for Desert Mountain, he refused on principle because it was Allen's position. That's just who he was—and who he is.

Credit: Martha Andrews

He's the type who, as Tabor explained, "walks to the beat of his own drum." That suits him. Andrews hasn't always been given the easiest path, but it never sounded like he wanted it.

"Right now there's nothing given to me," Andrew said. It's a mentality apropos of life as a Type 1 and as an athlete.

This isn't high school, after all. Andrews is no longer the biggest or fastest player on the field. Every practice, he goes up against guys like defensive end Charles Tapper, a First-Team All-Big 12 selection in 2013. That's ultimately how Andrews gets better.

"I'm still getting used to it," Andrews said. "Going up against Tapper, I'd be lying if I said I didn't get knocked on my ass a few times."

He can handle it. In a way, it wouldn't be the first time.

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. You can follow Ben on Twitter, @BenKercheval.

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