Northwood’s Aaron Varelas and Hunter Moss aren’t blood relatives, but it’s their blood that’s fused these athletes together.
Both overcame Type I diabetes to return to their respective playing fields because sports is in their blood, but their participation is made possible by rigorous monitoring of their blood sugar.
Moss, a junior baseball player diagnosed in March of 2012 during his freshman season, has recovered enough to participate as a varsity courtesy runner and a starter on the junior varsity team.
Varelas, who flourished at quarterback while filling in for the injured Jerrick Peterson before he returned to his normal running back role this past football season, had his junior campaign cut short by the diabetes diagnosis.
He returned to play soccer and will participate in this week’s track and field regionals as a hurdler, runner and pole vaulter.
Varelas said he knew Moss as a classmate and fellow athlete, but he’s leaned on Moss for encouragement and advice.
“He told me it will get better,” Varelas said recalling a conversation shortly after his own diagnosis. “It makes it a lot easier because if I have any questions, I know who to go to.
“He told me to get an insulin pump, and it’s made everything so much better. I figured my (athletics) career was over and I wouldn’t be able to do anything, but (Hunter) is still out there playing. It showed me that I can still do it, too.”
As a freshman in 2012, Hunter Moss was beginning to get some varsity pitching starts when he began losing weight rapidly.
“I lost 40 pounds in two weeks,” said Moss, who wasn’t aware of his ailment until multiple doctor visits revealed his blood sugar level at 1,500, more than 10 times the norm. “I was using the bathroom frequently and going through two or three cases of powerade a day.
“It was crazy. I was in the hospital for weeks and I lost 40 percent of my muscle mass. It drained all of my energy. It was overwhelming.”
Moss said it took six to eight months to regulate his blood sugar, and he started to feel more normal.
“I wanted to get back to baseball as soon as I could,” Moss said. “Guys from the team visited me and gave me encouragement.
“I wanted to be back on the field, but the fact that I couldn’t is the thing that got me.”
The timing of Varelas’ ailment derailed his part in a historic Northwood football season. Varelas was a huge part of the Falcons’ 9-1 regular season and a first-round playoff win before he was shipped to a Dallas hospital with out-of-control blood sugar levels.
“I felt really weak, and during practice, the coaches said I wasn’t looking too good,” Varelas said. “It wasn’t until the first playoff game that I went to the doctor.
“When they told me, my first reaction was that I was worried about the team. I felt like I was letting them down.”
Varelas couldn’t travel with the team for their second-round playoff game at Franklinton, and he followed the 35-14 loss via text message from a friend’s mom.
“It was really tough. I was sad because I wanted to help but I couldn’t,” Varelas said.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
A diet change, regular blood sugar monitoring and insulin shots form the foundation of lifestyle shifts to counter diabetes.
“I’m eating a lot healthier. When some people get a candy bar, I get an orange or an apple,” Moss said. “I monitor my carb intakes, but it’s not a radical change. My teammates might get three or four hamburgers, I might get just two. You get used to it after awhile.”
Moss, who weighed 140 pounds before the illness, still hasn’t gained all of his weight back more than two years later. But the 130-pound junior is close to full strength, lifting weights four times a week.
Moss said his teammates and coaches have learned about diabetes and help monitor his condition.
“My part of it is an eyeball deal,” said Northwood baseball coach Darien Dukes, who took a class to identify signs of abnormal blood sugar. “If he’s looking lethargic, we make sure he’s checked his blood sugar, and we keep snacks in the dugout. Our players look after one another, and I hear them in the clubhouse asking him if he’s checked his blood sugar.
“But getting back on the field, that’s Hunter’s doing. He’s taken it upon himself to figure out how to be healthy with diabetes. He’s doing a really good job for us, and next year, we’re looking for him to be a starting outfielder.”
Moss added that Dukes is “scared” of needles, but catcher Slade Baker learned how to administer a sugar water shot should Moss pass out from abnormal blood sugar.
Varelas didn’t suffer quite as drastically as Moss.
Varelas lost 20 pounds throughout his diagnosis, and he returned to the soccer field this winter before making a full recovery for track season.
“It took me about two or three months to feel right, to figure out what to eat to gain weight and how to lift weights without getting low,” Varelas said. “I check my blood six times a day and chew insulin four times a day. It takes time, but it’s worth it.”
The three-sport athlete said he learned how to compete with diabetes by using his junior soccer season as a testing ground.
“We messed with my diabetes to see what I could do and how I could do it,” said Varelas, who added that crackers have become his go-to snack food. “Soccer is a non-stop running sport, so we checked my blood sugar at the beginning of the game and then 10 minutes before halftime.
“If my levels were OK, I could play the second half. If not, then I would sit out.”
Varelas knew how his body reacted come track season, and he said while he’s regained 15 of his 20 pounds he lost, he feels stronger than ever.
He ran in the state meet in the 300 hurdles, and he’s improved on that time and his 110 hurdles time as well as adding pole vault to his plate a couple weeks ago. Varelas will compete in those three events at regionals and as an alternate in the 4X400 relay.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Moss’ and Varelas’ lifestyle changes aren’t just to compete at a high level again on playing fields, they strive to live long, healthy lives into adulthood.
“Aaron asked me how I overcame (diabetes), and it does come to a point where you’re depressed about everything and you want to eat what everybody else does,” Moss said. “But obviously, you just have to power through it.
“If you don’t, you’re not going to be here very much longer. You’ve got to take care of your body. If you don’t, your liver could fail and both of your kidneys. But Aaron is doing pretty miraculous with it.”
Moss added that athletic success is a motivator to take better care of his body, and his love for baseball fuels his desire to become the player he once was.
He can’t wait for his opportunity to be a starting outfielder and possibly a pitcher in his senior season.
“To get back to that level would be pretty awesome,” Moss said. “It’s been truly amazing to be part of this team because we’re like family.
“If they need me to go in, they need to know if I’m ready and healthy.”
Varelas dreams of a college football career, saying football is his love even if he might have a better shot to be a college track athlete.
He’s looking forward to the regional and hopefully state track meet before getting back on the football field, where he can be a starting running back and possibly even the starting quarterback.
“I really hope I can play in college,” Varelas said. “Right now I honestly don’t know. I feel like I’m better in football, and I like it more.”
Varelas said that throughout a trying football season and living with diabetes, he’s learned that leading by example can be just as effective as vocal leadership.
And he’s got a great example in Moss.
“Our senior year is going to be good for us,” Varelas said. “We’re both good at what we do, and we’re going to be behind each other all the way.
“We’re going to be at each other’s stuff. We’re backing each other up.”