Ravens rookie Mark Andrews refuses to be defined by diabetes

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The story that gets told again and again about Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews is his near-death experience three years ago.

As a freshman at Oklahoma, Andrews he was unresponsive due to hypoglycemia, a condition caused by very low blood sugar. His roommate had to shove fruit snacks in his mouth, and paramedics rushed to the scene where he finally regained consciousness.

Andrews, a Type 1 diabetic since childhood, knows more than anyone how it's a minute-by-minute battle with this disease. He understands how every bite of food he takes affects his body. He realizes the precautions he must take before any form of exercise.

But Andrews has never been hospitalized for diabetes. He never has had to miss a game or practice because of low blood sugar.

Diabetes has changed Andrews' life forever. It just hasn't stopped him from pursuing any of his goals.

Instead of focusing on a scary incident in his college dorm room, Andrews wants to talk about how he continually sidestepped defenders in the open field and raced to the end zone, becoming the nation's top tight end in college last season and a third-round pick in this year's draft by his commitment to control diabetes.

"My thing is living your best dream and don’t let this disease define you," Andrews said. "It’s definitely a part of who you are, but it shouldn’t be 100 percent who you are. That’s something I live by and I think strongly of."

Andrews' aspirations are to become the most complete tight end in the NFL and a role model for fellow diabetics. He's just beginning his journey in the league, but he already has made great strides in helping children cope with this disease.

Andrews has mentored countless boys and girls on eating right and staying active. Parents contact him through direct messages or track him down on the Internet after reading an article on him (there are 516,000 results when you Google tight end Mark Andrews and diabetes).

A few years ago, a mother contacted Andrews about her son, who had become depressed after being diagnosed with diabetes. After a talk at the high school with Andrews, the boy got in the car and told his mother "he just changed my life."

That boy went on to play four years of high school football.

"A lot of people think that they can’t be athletic and it’s too hard to do it," Andrews said. "For me, it's just being the inspiration and showing kids that there is someone else who’s done it."

It's not unprecedented for someone to play in the NFL with Type 1 diabetes. Quarterback Jay Cutler and defensive end Michael Sinclair were in the league for a combined 24 seasons with the disease.

There are 1.25 million Americans living with Type 1 diabetes, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Type 1 is a genetic disorder in which the body does not produce insulin on its own.

Andrews has a continuous glucose monitor that feeds his phone with his blood sugar readings. He wears an insulin pump near his right hip except when he plays football. According to Andrews, he'll have his blood sugar level tested twice during practice to make sure he's at the proper level.

The Ravens never expressed any concern about Andrews' condition when drafting him with the No. 86 overall pick.

"I was in the draft meetings and it never got brought up -- that I remember," coach John Harbaugh said. "Maybe I wasn’t paying attention when it got brought up. It wasn’t something that factored in to our consideration at all."

Growing up fast

Red flags were raised for Andrews at the age of 9, when he was making frequent trips to the bathroom.

Paul Andrews, Mark's father, is a urologist and took his son for a blood test. The diagnosis was Type 1 diabetes.

"I really didn’t understand the magnitude at the time," Mark Andrews said. "I saw my parents crying, and I had never seen my dad cry. But I saw him cry on that day. I knew it was something that was going to change my life forever and it did."

Andrews, though, was on the soccer field a few days later. He scored three goals and was named the tournament's most valuable player.

For Andrews, diabetes has been viewed as a hurdle, not a road block.

"Most kids just go out to play," said Martha Andrews, Mark's mother. "He can’t do that. He has to think. He has to plan. He has to be very mature. He’s done an amazing job."

Even with his disciplined approach, there have been emergencies that underscore the danger of this disease. In 2015, roommate and long snapper Wesley Horky found Andrews lying in his bed and just staring at the ceiling.

Horky called Andrews' mother, who suggested placing fruit chews into Mark's mouth. About 15 minutes later, Andrews became responsive again.

"Other than that handful of times, over the span of four years, it’s honestly pretty impressive how good he is about [diabetes]," Horky said.

'Talent is undeniable'

Andrews was known as a soccer and basketball player when he entered high school. That's until he was asked to join the football team by his friend Kyle Allen, the nation's top-rated high school quarterback in 2013 who is now with the Carolina Panthers.

"Early on, people kept saying, 'We’re going to be watching him play on Sundays,'" Martha Andrews said.

Andrews went to Oklahoma, where he eventually became the favorite target of Baker Mayfield. With his ability to get open and outrun defensive backs, Andrews won the John Mackey Award, which is given to college football's most outstanding tight end.

In his final season, Andrews was on a different level as a pass-catching tight end, producing 958 receiving yards -- which were 194 more than any other tight end that year. His average of 15.4 yards per catch was two more than any tight end with at least 40 receptions.

"He’s got such a unique skill set," Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said of Andrews on Adam Schefter's podcast. "He’s a tight end that has big-play ability. You don’t see too many guys at 6-5, 250 [pounds] that can run after the catch and be true weapons. To me, at that position, that’s so rare. I think he has a chance to be really, really good. His talent is undeniable."

Andrews' biggest play came against the Sooners' biggest rival. He scored the winning 59-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter in October, when Oklahoma beat Texas, 29-24. A wide-open Andrews caught the ball at the 30-yard line and beat everyone to the end zone.

"The picture of him running went viral," Horky said.

Next Dennis Pitta?

When Andrews declared for the draft with one year remaining, he was projected to be a first- or second-round pick. But he fell to the third round and wasn't even the first tight end picked by the Ravens.

Andrews doesn't believe his diabetes affected his draft stock. He made his handling of the disease a focal point in meetings with teams.

"I definitely thought I was going to go earlier," Andrews said. "I’m very confident in my ability. It was tough to see some guys go. I’m excited to be here. They love their tight ends."

Joe Flacco and the Ravens certainly do love their tight ends. Since entering the NFL in 2008, Flacco has targeted tight ends on 1,090 passes. Only Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady have thrown more to tight ends.

That position became a priority this offseason after the Ravens didn't re-sign Benjamin Watson, couldn't afford Jimmy Graham and failed to lure Eric Ebron to Baltimore. The Ravens decided to restock in the draft.

After taking Hayden Hurst in the first round, Baltimore went with Andrews in the middle of the third. The Ravens became the first team to draft two tight ends in the first three rounds since the 2012 Colts (Coby Fleener in the second round and Dwayne Allen in the third).

During offseason camps, Andrews has been impressive in how he runs downfield and how quickly he gets in and out of his breaks.

"He reminded me of [former Ravens TE] Dennis Pitta -- a linear body, a guy that runs well, very, very good hands, uncovers versus the zone, makes the tough catch, just a very smart player," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said.

Pitta was pivotal in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run and led all NFL tight ends with 86 receptions in 2016. But Pitta's strength was catching the ball and not blocking.

Like Pitta, the big question with Andrews is his ability to hold up at the point of attack in the running game. Andrews has been described more as a big slot receiver than a tight end, which is one reason why he might have slipped in the draft.

"I want to be a complete tight end. That’s my end goal," Andrews said. "I want to be the best complete tight end in the league. I’m going to work hard and get to it."

Andrews isn't going to let diabetes stand in his way to accomplish that. A big part of Andrews' success, according to those around him, is how he never questioned why he got the disease. He has put all of his energy into how to deal with it.

While some studies show Type 1 diabetes is genetic, no one else in Andrews' family has it.

"I got the bad luck," Andrews said. "Life works in mysterious ways, and I learned a lot from this disease. I wouldn’t be the person I am without it."