An admiring opponent once dubbed him “Mr. Fire,” an appropriate honorific for Bobby Clarke, whose hot play, helped make him one of the National Hockey League’s most promising rookies in 1969 and for three seasons its Most Valuable Player. At 33, the scrappy native of Flin Flon, Manitoba remains at center ice for the powerful Philadelphia Flyers, despite an ailment that many in the hockey fraternity once considered insurmountable. As one of 10 million diabetics in the U.S., Clarke contends daily with a hormone deficiency that severely disrupts his body’s ability to metabolize food properly. Although its symptoms were first identified 3,000 years ago, diabetes remains the third leading cause of death in the U.S., and its long-term complications can include blindness, kidney failure and a host of vascular problems. Like two million juvenile diabetics, Clarke controls his condition and its characteristic high blood sugar levels with daily injections of insulin, a treatment that requires a careful balance of medication, diet and exercise to prevent the hazards of insulin shock. In a conversation with PEOPLE’s Clare Crawford-Mason, Clarke talked frankly about the malady he has battled for two decades.
I was 13 when I developed the classic symptoms of a person who gets diabetes: a lot of weight loss, a tremendous thirst and blurry eyesight. My mom took me to the hospital, and the doctors took some blood tests. My blood sugar was so high that they knew right away. There was no guessing or anything.
They still don’t really know what causes juvenile diabetes. Some people say it’s hereditary; others think it’s caused by a virus. My dad had an aunt at the turn of the century who died from diabetes, but she was the closest affected relative in my family. For a lot of people who get it, diabetes seems very traumatic. I think it was worse for my mother than me. She had to begin weighing ail my food, and I’m sure she worried all the time—about diabetic coma on the one hand or whether I might get an insulin reaction from lowering the blood sugar too much. But whatever my parents felt, I wasn’t too aware of it, and they never did overreact. My doctor was pretty easygoing about it too. He explained diet and insulin and kept me in the hospital for a couple of weeks to get me regulated. He also said, “You can play sports and just go ahead and do the best you can.” At that time all I was interested in was sports, so as long as it didn’t restrict me from doing that, it wasn’t a catastrophe.
I gave myself injections right away. I know a lot of people have trouble, but I’ve never had any fear of that at all. If I had to do it five times a day, I’d do it five times a day; it wouldn’t bother me. Besides, I wasn’t given a choice. The doctor and my parents told me, “You’re going to have to take insulin the rest of your life, or at least until there’s a cure someday, so you might as well start now because it’s not going to change.” My parents never babied me or made me feel special because I had diabetes. I never remember them saying, “You have to take your insulin shot tomorrow morning, so you can’t go camping tonight.” If I wanted to go camping, I’d pack up my insulin and go.
I have collapsed just twice. The first time was in junior hockey about 16 or 17 years ago. I had breakfast, and then we had a game at 1 in the afternoon, so I just didn’t bother eating any lunch. Anybody who has diabetes can tell you the symptoms of low blood sugar; you recognize them right away, and you can do something about it if you know what’s happening. That first time I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t pass out, but I started acting goofy, sort of like I was drunk. Fortunately the rink was right beside the hospital, so the coach just walked me across the street, and they had it straightened out quickly. The second time was in training camp just after I was drafted by the Flyers 14 years ago, and it was the same thing. We had an early practice, and I didn’t have any breakfast. Afterward I was riding back to the hotel with some other players. I was in the back seat of the car, and I just went out, so they took me to the hospital.
I was lucky because the Flyers’ doctor was a diabetes expert. Until then I’d only had the two reactions, which seemed like nothing to me. This doctor made me more aware of the problems I might have with my eyes and kidneys if I didn’t take care of myself. When I was younger I didn’t want anyone to explain these things to me. I had my head in the sand. But as I got older, I wanted to know, and with him I had someone to talk to.
Now I have a glucometer, a little machine that lets you test your blood. It’s added years to my career. In the past if I was a little tired, say during a game, I wouldn’t know whether I was tired from being tired or whether my blood sugar was real high or getting too low. Either way can make you feel weak. So a lot of times it would be high, but I’d take some soda or something with sugar in it, and that wouldn’t help at all. Also, my blood sugar would go through peaks and valleys, and the urine tests I could do were never a good measure of that. With the glucometer I always know how much blood sugar I’ve got, so I can adjust my insulin or the food I eat. I don’t keep it in the dressing room, but I usually use it before I leave home, and after the game I check it again.
Other than the glucometer, I think the amount of exercise I get has probably been the best thing for me. Just about every doctor I’ve ever talked to has encouraged me to stay active, and that’s easy for me. During the season we skate all the time, and I start running and swimming and lifting weights two or three days after the season is over and continue that through the summer. I do it at least six days a week and sometimes seven, for hockey as well as for diabetes.
Because of the amount of exercise I get, I’ve never had to follow the restricted diet that a lot of diabetics do. I haven’t had to weigh my food since I left home about-15 years ago. There’s no way I could do that living in hotels as much as we do, but I did it for so long that I know almost exactly how many calories are in a potato and how much in meat and so on. I have to stay away from sugar, obviously, although sometimes during a game, if I feel the exercise I’m getting is lowering my blood sugar too much, I’ll take a little Coke or something.
People think I have some secret that allows me to have diabetes and play hockey, that I must be doing something nobody else is doing. But my diabetes is the same as any juvenile diabetic’s. I have to take insulin; I have to exercise and watch what I eat. I’m asked a lot to advise young people who get it. I think they have to take care of it themselves. Doctors can advise them, and parents can advise them, but it’s their body. There are things they’re going to want to do in life, so they have to know how to handle it. I just tell them, “You can do it if you want to. Don’t use it as a crutch.”
As for me, I’ve had diabetes for so long I almost don’t even think about it anymore. Obviously I’m aware of the problems diabetics can have, and if they arise I guess I’ll have to handle them. I don’t know if the reason I’ve been lucky so far is that I take good care of myself. Doctors haven’t figured it all out yet, but it seems to me that people who watch out for themselves have less chance of developing complications. We get real good physicals from the hockey club every year, and I just assume that I’m going to live as long as anybody else, that I’m not going to have any problems.
With me, diabetes has just always been there. The one thing that used to bother me a lot was when people talked about “Bob Clarke, the diabetic hockey player.” If they said, “Bob Clarke, the hockey player who happens to have diabetes,” that would be more like it.