BALTIMORE -- Ravens tight end Mark Andrews had finished his pregame warm-ups and was walking off the field in Chicago on Nov. 21 when he saw a sign that immediately caught his attention.
In purple lettering, it read: “T1D.”
Few in Soldier Field knew what it meant, but Andrews did -- it’s shorthand for Type 1 diabetes.
Andrews veered over to 10-year-old Rhys Kinney, who made the placard for the Pro Bowl tight end. After giving Kinney a fist bump, Andrews told him: “Anything you want to do is possible."
A Type 1 diabetic since childhood, Andrews has made it his mission to motivate those diagnosed with this chronic condition at a young age. His message: Don’t let this disease define you.
Andrews’ goal has never been to become the best tight end with diabetes. He wants to become the best tight end in football, and his 22 receiving touchdowns since 2019 -- the most by any tight end -- are a testament to his determination. Still, Andrews knows his success can make a difference off the field.
“Type 1 diabetes is a 24/7 fight, and for a young kid to see someone performing at the highest level, I think that’s encouraging,” Andrews said. “That’s a big moment.”
Kinney, who lives approximately 30 miles outside of Chicago, was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 5. He was in the hospital and scared, according to his father, Brett. His one question was whether he would ever play baseball again.
"It’s not something that I can relate to him about,” Brett said. "I can say that I can understand him getting frustrated, but I can’t say that I can understand from experience.
“I just like to get him around people like Mark so that he can laugh and make a joke about it, and they’re like, 'Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about. That sucks.’ Why I really appreciate Mark is he made Rhys feel special, and not different. He has plenty of days where he feels different.”
'He'll remember this forever'
Rhys and Brett reached out to the Ravens a few weeks before they traveled to the road game against the Bears, and they soon received a letter. Andrews wrote to Rhys and explained diabetes made him the person he is today, and that he should view the disease as a benefit, not a hindrance. Andrews said he was forced to grow up very quickly because of his condition. At an early age, he learned how to count the carbs he would consume and calculate the correct insulin dosage he would inject into his body. Andrews said it pushed him to respect his body and his health.
Rhys was determined to meet Andrews in Chicago, and the Ravens told the Kinneys the best way to make it happen was to make a sign. So Rhys went to work. The sign had “T1D” on one side and “Mark 89 Andrews” on the other. To make sure Rhys, wearing his Andrews jersey, was perfectly positioned, his father got tickets by the tunnel where Ravens players entered and left the field.
The preparation paid off. After talking with Andrews before the game, Rhys made sure to wave goodbye after Baltimore’s 16-13 victory, and Andrews provided a souvenir by handing over his gloves. Rhys has rarely taken them off since, whether he’s simulating one-handed grabs in the living room or even eating dinner.
"The amount of kindness that Mark showed my family, and the effect that he had on my son cannot be overemphasized,” Brett said. "He really changed my son’s life. He’ll remember this forever.”
The American Diabetes Association estimates 1.6 million people have Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that prevents your pancreas from producing insulin. Andrews has become one of the leading advocates for the diabetes community. Last year, he wrote a column for USA Today about how he didn’t let the disease stop him from achieving his dreams. Over the years, Andrews has mentored boys and girls on eating right and staying active. He’s also counseled some who have become depressed after being diagnosed with diabetes.
"To be able to have that kind of impact, that means a lot to Mark. But, more importantly, he wants it to mean something to kids,” said Martha Andrews, Mark’s mother. “Whether you want to be a ballerina, a football player or baseball player, or you just want to be a fireman, you can’t let this stop you. You've got to find a way to make it work. And Mark, he found a way. He’s lucky. But he just never took no for an answer.”
A wake-up call
Andrews’ life changed after a near-death experience.
Andrews experienced his first hypoglycemic incident, which caused him to lose consciousness, as a freshman at Oklahoma. His glucose levels dropped extremely low while he was napping after football practice. When Andrews’ roommate found him unresponsive, he shoved fruit snacks in Andrews’ mouth and called 911.
“That kind of woke myself up and my family,” Andrews said.
Andrews’ doctor told him about a continuous glucose monitor, which Andrews now wears every day. No more daily finger pricks. No more uncertainty about his blood sugar level.
His Dexcom G6 monitor uses a tiny sensor to send glucose levels to his phone, alerts him when his levels are too low or high and discreetly attaches to his hip. He wears it under his uniform.
“Honestly, I don’t even notice it, even when I get hit there,” Andrews said. “I forget it’s on me sometimes.”
The glucose monitor provides real-time updates on his blood sugar level through an app, and the information is shared with family members, his agent and the Ravens' trainers. Andrews’ mother acknowledges she will check two or three times per day -- “being a little bit nosey.”
She intervenes only when she receives an alert, which indicates Andrews’ blood sugar level is below 60. If she sees double arrows down -- which means his levels are dropping fast -- Martha will send a one-word text to her 6-foot-5, 256-pound son: “Sugar.” This typically happens once a week.
"It’s very important to my sound mind,” Martha said. "You can say, out of sight, out of mind, but you can’t do that with diabetes. It’s a worry 24 hours a day. But now I don’t have to. I know my phone will buzz if I have to get involved.”
Blood sugar levels can drop when someone exerts a lot of energy, so it’s important to keep an eye on Andrews when he suits up. During practices, Andrews gives his phone to a trainer, who follows him all around the field. After Andrews runs a couple of plays, he’ll come off the field and the trainer will give him his exact readings. In games, Andrews keeps a “diabetes bag” on the sideline that’s filled with snacks and other supplies to help him maintain his blood sugar levels.
Ravens backup tight end Nick Boyle has become more educated about diabetes because Andrews is one of his best friends on the team. He knows what the numbers mean and often looks at them when Andrews checks the readings on his phone.
"A lot of people don’t even notice it because he does such a good job of managing and going out there and doing his job,” Boyle said.
Playing with a purpose
During the hot and humid training camp practices, Andrews never asks for a day off and battles linebackers and defensive backs like it’s a playoff game. He fights for contested passes over the middle and leaps for throws in the end zone.
But the sweat and grass stains still don't cover up the chip that’s been on Andrews’ shoulder since he slipped to the third round of the 2018 draft.
"I know just going through the combine process and all that, I’m sure there’s teams and people that saw me and said, 'Oh, he’s a Type 1 diabetic. That’s negative,’” Andrews said. "I don’t think that, I know that.”
It didn’t take the Ravens long to know they had landed a special talent. Two days into Andrews' first offseason camp, then-tight ends coach Greg Roman told everyone in a meeting Andrews has a great feel for the game and natural instincts. Andrews knew how to set up defenders and get open consistently.
By the start of the regular season, Andrews had moved past first-round pick Hayden Hurst on the depth chart. By the end of it, he had already established himself as the favorite receiver for Lamar Jackson.
Andrews has now recorded three consecutive seasons with at least 50 receptions, 700 receiving yards and five touchdowns catches. Only the Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce owns a longer such streak by a tight end with five season.
“We have high expectations for Mark,” said Roman, who is now the Ravens' offensive coordinator. "He does for himself, and that’s where it all starts.”
"That's one of the things that drives me is going out there and showing people that hey, I'm a Type 1 diabetic, but I'm going to go out and compete with the rest of them." Mark Andrews
A week before this year’s opener, Baltimore rewarded Andrews with a four-year, $56 million extension. At $14 million per season, Andrews is the third-highest-paid tight end in the league, trailing the San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle ($15 million per season) and Kelce ($14.3 million).
The Ravens couldn’t let Jackson’s most trusted target reach free agency. Whenever Jackson needs to make a play downfield, it seems like he’s looking to Andrews. Andrews' acrobatic catch in the end zone was the difference in the Ravens’ 16-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday night. Andrews has now caught 187 passes from Jackson, 29 more than any other Ravens player.
“He makes my job way easier,” Jackson said. “If a defensive back is guarding him, a safety, linebacker, it doesn’t really matter — he’s going to get open and he’s going to catch a touchdown nine times out of 10.”
For Andrews, he’s not just playing for the Ravens. He’s playing to inspire others.
"There’s a lot of people breaking that mold and showing people that we can do anything and we can be just like anybody else. We just have to do more than the average person,” Andrews said. “That’s one of the things that drives me is going out there and showing people that hey, I’m a Type 1 diabetic, but I’m going to go out and compete with the rest of them."