BOULDER, Colo. -
Colorado star defensive lineman Will Pericak faces two opponents every Saturday: the opposing quarterback and diabetes.
After every other series, he goes to the sideline for finger pricks to test his blood sugars. High-fructose energy drinks are on hand if he needs them.
Pericak was diagnosed at 15 when he was a freshman at Boulder High School, but his older brother was diagnosed much younger, "so I kind of grew up with it throughout my youth, so I kind of knew what it was all about."
Like many diabetics, Pericak, a senior who packs 285 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame, uses a proper balance of diet, medication and exercise to control his disease, which he has come to view as more a blessing than a curse.
"Absolutely. I know it's definitely a challenge for me. But then again I'm more healthy because of it," Pericak said. "It is a disease and it definitely has pros and cons, the pro being I know what I'm eating, I watch what I'm eating. I'm able to understand my body better. And that ends up helping me be able to play my best. If I get low in a game, it may cost us a huge play or something like that."
Pericak said he's in better tune with his mind and body and more mindful of nutrition because of diabetes and the necessity to maintain proper blood sugar levels. Get too low and he'll feel shaky and find it difficult to concentrate and react quickly. Get too high and he'll have headaches, feel tired, moody, depressed.
None of those are conducive to chasing down quarterbacks or stuffing running backs.
"For games, I worry about low blood sugars because it affects how I'm thinking and what I'm able to do," Pericak said. "No, I've never had any scary moments in competition. I have had a severe low blood sugar but I was with my family, but nothing during the games and they keep a close eye on me and make sure I'm doing all right. I always have some sort of carbohydrates and sugars nearby."
Pericak used to wear an insulin pump but switched to injections in college.
"I did have the insulin pump in high school for my senior year and every game it got ripped out," Pericak said. "But it's just a little patch with a little catheter inside you so it's pretty temperamental, so after a game I'd have to have insulin syringes near me so when the pump did come undone from football, I was able to give myself insulin.
"But the pump is something I'm probably going to go back to once football is over because it does provide really good control."
About 21 million Americans have diabetes, meaning their bodies cannot properly turn blood sugar into energy. Either they don't produce enough insulin or don't use it correctly. With the Type 1 form that Pericak has, the body's immune system attacks insulin-producing pancreatic cells, so that patients require insulin injections to survive.
Pericak said his most recent glycosylated hemoglobin test, or AIC, which reflects average blood glucose levels over the past two to three months and is a truer gauge than daily finger pricks, was 5.9 percent.
A reading under 7 percent shows Pericak has his diabetes in good control, particularly given the stress he's under as a college football player.
Pericak accidentally double-dosed before a recent practice and crashed.
"I get pretty stupid. I have no idea what's going on. Sometimes I'll get a little grumpy, too," Pericak said.
His teammates keep an eye on him whether it's on the football field or in study hall, getting him Gatorade if he needs it.
It's not his disease but his disruptive play that has NFL scouts taking notice of Pericak.
He's made 42 straight starts, highest among active Buffs, and has posted 26 tackles so far. In the opener against Colorado State, he tied his career high with 10 tackles, had a fourth-down stop, a fumble recovery and blocked a PAT after a Rams touchdown.
"After we gave up that first touchdown against CSU, it could have been easy to be demoralized. They line up to kick their extra point and he comes through and blocks it," Colorado coach Jon Embree said. "And he plays every play like this is the one play that is going decide the game."
After that game, Embree moved Pericak from defensive tackle to left defensive end, and Pericak kept right on rolling.
Two weeks ago, in Colorado's win at Washington State, Pericak recorded his first sack, pressured the quarterback three other times, made a key third-down stop and even broke up a pass dropping into coverage.
Pericak's move to defensive end not only helps the Buffs but could burnish his credentials for the NFL.
"He's a guy that's going to play on Sunday and he may have to play on the edge, in a 3-4 front or he can play inside on an even front," Embree said.
Embree said it's folly to judge Pericak's production simply on statistics.
"Sometimes numbers can be deceiving for defensive linemen because you look at tackles and sacks and all that," Embree said. "But to me, it's about being disruptive in the run game, it's about penetration, it's about knocking the quarterback down, making him move, doing all those things. And Will has done that consistently in every game."