Stephens practices what he preaches

11/24/2004 - Pittsburgh Panthers

The alarm clock in Dan Stephens' apartment goes off at 3 a.m. every day. He promptly gets out of bed, pricks his finger and checks to make sure his blood sugar is at the proper level.

If it is not ...

"I take a shot of insulin," said Stephens, a senior defensive tackle at Pitt who must then submerge a needle into his abdomen.

Stephens follows the same procedure three hours later. And, he continues the process throughout the day, as many as 18 more times.

He must shoot his stomach with insulin each time he sits down to eat.

"That's life as I know it," Stephens said.

This is what it is like to be a Type 1 diabetic, someone who has the most severe form of juvenile diabetes. If Stephens does not do these things, he will die.

Scary stuff, yet a harsh reality.

"It's been this way since I was 10 years old," said Stephens, who will spend Thanksgiving night trying to help the Panthers (6-3, 3-2 Big East) stop West Virginia (8-2, 4-1) at Heinz Field (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) in a game that has possible Big East title and major bowl implications. "You learn to deal with it."

This story would have a happy ending if Stephens simply continued his current pace on the football field (three-year starter, 133 career tackles, three bowl appearances) and in the classroom (Verizon Academic All-American). But the Wheeling, W.Va., native needs more.

He wants to give back. And, more importantly, he has to give back.

"There are a lot of young kids out there who need to know that you can do whatever you want with this condition," Stephens said. "They have to understand that this shouldn't keep them down, that the sky is the limit. I feel like I have a responsibility to them and I try to do whatever I can."

That's why Stephens began mentoring young diabetics while he was still a child himself, a mere high schooler. He gained a modicum of fame in Wheeling for his athletic prowess in football, hockey, basketball and baseball, and he utilized it to be a role model.

He met with parents and loved ones of those who lived with a diabetic. He spoke at events. He was always a phone call away.

"An inspiration," Pitt coach Walt Harris said. "What Dan does off the field is a lot more impressive than what he does on it -- and we're pleased with what he's done on it."

As Stephens became more prominent in the Pittsburgh sports culture, different organizations asked him to speak to young children.

At an event at Pitt's practice headquarters, more than 100 juvenile diabetics showed up to hear what Stephens termed as "jock talk." His message was simple: The words "quit" and "give up" should never enter their vocabulary.

"When I was first diagnosed, there weren't many people out there saying to me, 'This is what you can do ...'" said Stephens, the son of educators -- a high school superintendent and a principal. "Nobody was telling me I could play sports and be successful. Nobody was coming out and saying everything was going to be all right, do whatever you want to do. That's why it's so important for me to talk to the kids at Children's Hospital and speak at various events. I want them to know that we're going to be OK."

Stephens also has selfish reasons for being a champion of his cause.

"Those kids inspire me, too," he said. "I look at them and I know they're trusting in what I say. It drives me, and I can't let them down. I think about them in the classroom and it pushes me (to maintain a 3.8 GPA in grad school). It pushes me to be my best on the football field.

"I can't let those kids or their parents see me mess up after the things I say to them. I had better be following through on what I'm telling them, or what am I? You don't just talk the talk. You have to walk the walk."

Stephens is doing just that.

"It's been an honor to work with him," Pitt defensive line coach Bob Junko said. "He really is a special young man."

A young man who lives with a complex disease, but makes it seem simple.

"It's who I am," Stephens said. "And, I wouldn't change it."

Joe Bendel covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.