The small baggage Chris Connolly carries: the story of a Type 1 diabetic athlete
Despite battling a non-curable disease, Chris Connolly continues to conquer
February 27, 2019
With his quick feet and ability to dodge hard, Chris Connolly is a captivating presence on the lacrosse field. His athletic skill is incredible and makes him a dangerously unstoppable player, set on taking down his opponent. This powerhouse of an attackman is nothing short of a vital member of the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse offense.
What sets him apart from the average athlete, and even his fellow teammates, is unseen to the average person. Only those who really know Connolly, know that he is not your average collegiate athlete. In addition to being an insanely talented lacrosse player, the sophomore battles Type 1 diabetes.
Connolly is one of the one million-plus Type 1 diabetics in America. In addition to defensemen on the field, he battles low blood sugar.
Connolly was diagnosed in 2007 – when he was just nine years old – and immediately wanted to speak about his journey and experience as an athlete with diabetes. From a young age, Connolly had always known sports and loved playing them; his diagnosis didn’t change that.
“He grew up quick,” Chris’s mother Heather recalled. “What I learned was that to give a nine-year-old Type 1 diabetes was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to endure. But he did it all. He gave himself his shots, and I helped him get the right measure.
“It was tough,” she added. “He always had to have a well-balanced breakfast, which was my priority. I cooked him breakfast every day and packed his lunch to bring to school. We always had to make it, so we knew the carb count. We had to know the amount of every single carb, and to include a note in his lunch that had that amount.”
With type 1 diabetes, maintaining a level blood sugar range is crucial. Any and all stress affects blood sugar, both good and bad.
“What we found was that there were no problems [when it came to playing sports], as long as everyone knew what he had, and that he was prepared,” Heather noted.
Despite these factors, Connolly has refused to let his condition prevent him from being unstoppable. He dreamed of becoming a collegiate athlete from a young age, and fiercely pursued his dreams.
Growing up, Connolly was highly athletic, playing both hockey and lacrosse. He was focused on playing hockey for a majority of his school years, and ended up deciding to play lacrosse. Choosing lacrosse meant repeating his junior year, in order to be able to play in his college years.
“[Playing lacrosse] is a little bit different [from playing hockey in a diabetic standpoint],” Connolly said. “In hockey, I had my hockey pants on and was able to wear my insulin pump in the waistband of my pads while I played. In lacrosse, I just wear shorts, so I have to take my pump off while I play. So, it’s a little bit different controlling my blood sugar playing lacrosse because I don’t have the constant flow of insulin, so my blood sugar can fluctuate more. But I try to check my blood sugar in between quarters or at half time, depending how I’m feeling.”
Like many of his teammates, Connolly completed a post-graduation year at a prep school called Trinity-Pawling. From there, coach Greg Cannella spotted the potential in Connolly.
“He was a late recruit,” Cannella said, recalling Connolly’s journey to Amherst. “We went to an Under Armour tournament-tryout and said, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’ He was a hockey player and was focused on playing hockey for a really long time. What we noticed was his ability to dodge hard, had a great skill set. But he really stood out because of his athleticism.”
Surprisingly, during recruitment, Cannella had no idea of Connolly’s condition, and it wasn’t until after Connolly was committed to UMass that he found out what Connolly was dealing with.
“The way he handled it, is the same way he handles it every day. It’s just part of everything, there’s no drama associated with that at all,” said Cannella.
From there, Connolly established himself as a vital member of the Minutemen. Connolly was named Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Week four times his freshman year, as well as CAA Rookie of the Year and CAA All-Rookie Team. In just his first season alone, he totaled 50 points as a starter on attack in all 17 games, scoring 25 goals and 25 assists. This feat made Connolly the highest-scoring freshman since Jeff Spooner in 1974 with 73 points, making both he and Spooner the only freshmen with 50 or more points in a season. In addition, Connolly provided the most groundballs among all CAA attackmen with 33, causing nine turnovers.
“Chris is very talented as an athlete,” said Cannella. “But also, as a lacrosse player in terms of his ability to score, to feed it, to lead. He’s a real positive influence, because he’s got a great demeanor, great attitude, enjoys coming to practice and I think that’s contagious with his teammates.”
So, how does he do it? Connolly tries to maintain a pretty consistent schedule that involves testing his blood sugar, getting in three meals a day and getting the right amount of insulin. Everywhere he goes, he carries a pack with him that includes a glucagon to test his blood sugar, snacks and juice boxes to help him maintain his levels. In addition to this schedule, he juggles school with practices and games.
“[The biggest struggles I face] would be making sure I’m in a good range,” Connolly said. “Going into practice, there’s times I’ll go into practice and I’ll be too high and it’ll not so much affect how I play, but how I’m feeling. There are days I’ll have a weird blood sugar and perform the same as I would any other day.”
“But there’s some days I just feel weird and it’s just a different feeling when I’m in a good range going into practice,” he added.
Despite his independence and maturity, no one can truly do it alone. Connolly attributes his success to his support systems both at home and at school: his family as well as his roommate and teammate, Alex Shuster. Shuster, a sophomore midfielder hailing from Ohio, supports Connolly both on and off the field.
“Alex Shuster is always there for me and helps me out on a regular basis,” Connolly said. “Especially living with him, he can always tell if my blood sugar is high or low, and he’s always understanding if I wake up at three in the morning with low blood sugar rummaging around for snacks.”
Connolly and his roommate share a strong bond. Shuster, an upbeat, kind guy, helps him in the little ways he can, which add up to a lot of help in the long run.
“A lot of snack runs to Berk,” Shuster revealed. “Or late-night grocery runs, if he ever needs a snack, I’ll pick it up and bring it back for him. Just little things like that.”
In addition to Shuster, the entire team backs Connolly in any way they can. Connolly’s condition rarely impacts the dynamic on the field.
I think everyone treats me like everyone else,” Connolly said. “Obviously, they’re understanding, especially during practice. I go low sometimes and have to step off the field and get some snacks in me. Everyone’s very understanding of that, and I haven’t had anybody treating me differently because I have diabetes – just same as everyone else.”
To close out Connolly’s support staff on campus is trainer Bob Kuzmeski. When discussing his relationship with Kuzmeski, Connolly specifically highlighted Kuzmeski’s constant supply of juice boxes for him in case of any drops in blood sugar.
“He’s always there for me and helping me when I have low or high blood sugar on the field,” Connolly said. “Always handy with a juice box for me, which is great. Always making sure I’m okay. [Kuzmeski and Shuster] are definitely part of my success on the team.”
But the support doesn’t stop on the UMass campus. Connolly really attributes his successes to his family most of all. His parents, Heather and Michael, and his sister are always there for him and put him before themselves.
“Coming from a young age, I was diagnosed when I was nine years old, so they were right there with me and there with me every step of the way,” Connolly recalled. “They had to help me with insulin injections, and literally anything involving diabetes you can think of. They were able to teach me how to control myself, and not let it stop me, but also encourage me to reach out to other people and help other people realize that this is just a disease that I can’t let stop me.”
For Heather Connolly, it was a hard road to drive down. No parent wants their child to go through being diagnosed with such a life-altering disease, but she supported her son through it all. And all of her dedication and devotion has thus far paid off.
Heather was thrilled for Connolly to commit to a school that was close by.
“There’s times when supplies don’t work, and we’ll get a bad shipment of stuff,” she said. “And even though he took enough to get through until the next time he comes home, it still happens. So, it’s good that I’m close enough where I can throw another box in the car and be up there.”
When asked of what she was most proud of Connolly for, she recalled the time she and Chris traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak on behalf of the American Diabetes Association to Congress. Connolly was about nine years old at the time and the day before they traveled from their home in Connecticut to D.C., Connolly took a puck/stick to the eye which resulted in a black eye. When he went before Congress to advocate for diabetics, he did nothing short of dazzle the room.
“He gets up there, and he wouldn’t let me see his speech, and he says ‘well first off all I thought my mom told me it was a black eye event.’ And the whole place erupted, and then the whole place was bawling because they all felt so bad for his struggles. We then came back to the table, and Christopher had a line of people waiting to talk to him.”
Connolly’s activism for the American Diabetes Association has had resounding effects on health care for diabetics in America. He’s had successes as large as passing a $1.3 billion bill that supported the diabetic cause, and much more like it.
Connolly has always known that he wanted to reach out and speak out about his journey in order to help others.
“Immediately [after being diagnosed], I wanted to speak out about my journey and growing up as an athlete, how it’s affected me and such,” Connolly said. “It’s been a great experience just helping me with public speaking, as well as trying to help people, not only myself, but people in the United States by passing bills that were really important for us.”
Connolly attributes his selflessness to what diabetes has taught him. From the day he was diagnosed, he dedicated himself to never backing down from a challenge, but instead using it to help and teach others how to deal with their struggles.
“Everyone’s going through something, whether you know it or not,” said Connolly. “Especially with diabetes, every day is unpredictable. I try to make it as predictable as possible, but there’s some days, if you ask any diabetic, they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about, where it’s those days where no matter what you do nothing is going to go right.”
“I think those are the days you have to step back and say, it’s going to be all right, you just have to get through today and know that tomorrow is going to be better,” he added.
Connolly’s constant positivity radiates throughout the team, leaving a lasting effect, even on his coach.
“I think for everyone you hear ‘oh this guy is a diabetic,’ you think that’s a very major issue for somebody,” Cannella said. “But, a guy whose mature, like Chris, and I think many of the kids involved in athletics are very independent. They’ve grown up with this, and they know their responsibilities and to check themselves. But also, to know their bodies and how they feel. So, I think that their maturity level for all those guys is pretty high. Again, he comes up with his pack every day, and nobody even notices. I’m sure for his parents growing up, I’m sure they were so worried, I know I would be.”
So, what does Connolly plan to do in the foreseeable future? Activism, lacrosse and school. Besides those obvious factors, he plans to work more one-on-one with children struggling with diabetes.
“I’ll probably continue to work with the ADA and do some more speaking,” said Connolly. “I definitely want to do some camps this summer, involving lacrosse and diabetes. Just work with kids who may be afraid to get out there and try something new, play lacrosse or sports in general. Having a disease and being newly diabetic or someone who is diabetic who isn’t comfortable playing sports because they’re scared their blood sugar will get too low.”
But there’s one thing for sure Connolly plans to continue doing, and that is never backing down. Connolly has proven that nothing can stop him, and he will continue to prove that fact, and hopefully inspire others to know that they can do it too.
“The misconception that it will stop you from things is definitely false and you can do whatever you want,” Connolly said.
Grace Sherwood can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @gshersports.