There are a lot of barriers standing between the average youth soccer player and a career as a professional. There’s competition, fitness, skills, bad coaching. Jordan Morris had one more barrier to deal with. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was nine.
“You don’t see a ton of professional soccer players with diabetes,” Morris tells Sounder at Heart. “My dad recently told me he didn’t even think I’d be able to play soccer in college.”
Having Type 1 diabetes means that Morris’ pancreas doesn’t produce insulin. After eating, sugar and other nutrients enter the blood stream, and insulin helps the body absorb that sugar and turn it into energy. Morris wears an insulin pump, a cell phone-sized device that gives him a steady stream of insulin throughout the day, and more whenever he eats.
A lot of being a diabetic is trying to keep the amount of sugar in the blood within a specific range. That requires constantly paying attention to insulin, exercise, and food intake. It can feel a bit like living in that gif of Zach Galifianakis enshrouded in a swirling cloud of calculations. Insulin lowers blood sugars. With some exceptions, exercise also lowers them and food has the opposite effect.
Even for diabetics with the best control, the disease is a major health issue. Low blood sugars can make a diabetic feel lightheaded or blur their vision. Serious low blood sugars, although rare, can cause loss of consciousness. On the other hand, high blood sugars can mean headaches or nausea and, if left untreated, can lead to comas.
“When I was newly diagnosed, it was scary,” Morris says. “It was tough. There were a lot of questions going through my mind.”
Morris profusely credits his parents (his dad is the Sounders’ team doctor, and his mom was a nurse) for helping him early on. He had to learn to check his blood sugar multiple times a day: when he eats, exercises, wakes up, goes to bed, or just feels off. Before meals he has to count how many carbs he’s going to have, so that he knows how much insulin to give himself, because the body converts most carbs into sugar. He carries a backpack around with diabetes supplies he might need in an emergency.
In his journey from high school to college to Major League Soccer, he has gotten better at dealing with the disease, largely because of how well he has gotten to know his body. Things like how sensitive a diabetic is to insulin (in other words, how much insulin they give themselves for how many carbs they eat, or how much their blood sugar is off), can change based on things as simple as the time of day. So knowing your body helps. Morris has a specific food that he knows works well when he has low blood sugar: fruit snacks. Nowadays, most of his diabetes management is up to him.
“It’s pretty much all me doing it,” Morris says. “[The Sounders] obviously do normal dietary stuff with athletes, but in terms of my diabetes, it’s me kind of having to deal with it, because I know my body best.”
Even with all the knowledge that he has stored up, with all he knows about how his body reacts to different stimuli, dealing with the diabetes is still difficult. He has to deal with the fact that no matter how much calculation he does, things can still go wrong.
“I think the toughest part about diabetes is it’s so unpredictable,” he says. “You can eat the same things, do the same work out a couple days in a row and your blood sugar will turn out differently at the end. It’s just different days lead to different blood sugars.”
And being a professional adds new difficulties too. Adrenaline raises blood sugars, meaning that on gameday, when he’s looking up from the turf at a sea of screaming fans, the same thing that energizes him to play his best is also going to cause a spike in his blood sugars if he doesn’t counter it with the exact right amount of insulin.
He fine-tuned how he deals with the adrenaline over the 2016 season. During a game against Portland, his blood sugar went low and he had to scramble over to the sidelines to eat some gummies. He said that during the MLS Cup final in Toronto he came into the locker room feeling sick, checked his blood sugar, and found out it was high. That was annoying.
“If things aren’t right with your blood sugar, you’re not going to be as efficient on the field,” he said. “Obviously as a professional athlete everything should be focused on the game, and not on your diabetes.”
Dave Tenney, the Sounders’ High Performance Director, is impressed with Morris’ diabetes management. “Whatever Jordan says, I trust him, because I know what he’s been through and that he’s learned to listen to his body better than the average (21)-year-old,” Tenney told the Seattle Times last October.
Morris says he’s proud of how he has dealt with his diabetes, and of course for making it to MLS, too. Now that he’s a Sounder, he says he’s trying to be a role model for younger kids. Diabetic athletes Jay Cutler and Adam Morrison gave him hope growing up, and he likes giving that same hope to a new generation of young diabetics.
“When I was a kid, I told myself I wasn’t going to let it hold me back, and now that my dream’s become a reality, it’s pretty special to see that that’s happened. I think it taught me how to be responsible at such a young age. I had to deal with this disease that you have to be constantly aware of. I definitely don’t think I’d be the person I am today without it.”