Heritage High quarterback Daeshawn Mills appeared trapped, defenders converging around him on fourth down, a sack inevitable and the outcome of last week’s game still in danger.
He had been trapped before, drinking water all the time as a fifth-grader and experiencing the natural result.
“I was telling my mom something was wrong with me, and I didn’t know what it was. I was going to the bathroom every two seconds.”
She took him to the doctor, and he received the same diagnosis both of his grandmothers had gotten long before: diabetes.
“Type 1, hereditary. It runs in the family. I got it from generations.”
Mills’ pancreas doesn’t produce the insulin needed to properly handle the sugar in his body. He checks his own glucose levels and, when necessary, self-injects.
“I didn’t really like anybody else doing it,” he said. “It’s a very small needle, so I wasn’t really scared of it or anything.”
The senior has lived this life for seven years. Three hours before he starts at quarterback tonight at 7, Mills will check his sugar and then eat a pregame meal.
“If it’s high, I eat the same (as the team), but I have to take the insulin, which brings my sugar back to normal. After that, I don’t check it again until we run out here. I check it again right before kickoff, just to make sure.”
Then he’ll lead Heritage, the sixth-ranked team in Class 6A, against the No. 2 team in 4A, Jacksonville Bolles.
On the field, he will be one of three returning thousand-yard rushers for the Panthers, along with running backs Josh Gaines and Lasedrick King. He started last season as an outside linebacker and a hybrid offensive player, running and catching passes, with an occasional series at quarterback.
“I’d get too tired,” Mills said. “Once I stopped playing defense, I had more stamina to do things and make plays.”
Mills gained most of his yards as the season reached the midpoint, when the coaches decided his body needed the rest it couldn’t get while playing both offense and defense. They installed him as the team’s quarterback, and only the team’s quarterback, and his production has exploded.
“He started the first four games at outside linebacker. We had a package for him at quarterback, but we started seeing fatigue,” Panthers coach Mark Ainsley said. “We felt we were stronger at linebacker, because we had some depth there, so we put him at quarterback.”
His doctor encouraged his athletic career from the beginning. Neither Heritage athletic director Greg McGrew or Panthers certified athletic trainer Enrique Luna could remember working with an athlete with diabetes, but there have been many.
Among them are NFL quarterback Jay Cutler, Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Jr. and groundbreaking baseball player Jackie Robinson.
Ainsley and Luna both said that Mills’ success is made possible because he takes care of himself, and the quarterback described his own life with diabetes as “pretty smooth.”
“I just have to check my sugar, make sure it’s not too high, too low, and I can function very well.”
Many opposing coaches would agree. Since he became a quarterback and nothing else, the numbers have grown.
In the fourth game of 2014, at Okeechobee, he broke free for a 55-yard touchdown run in the third quarter for a 14-7 win, then the team’s third in a row. Heritage still used two quarterbacks that night, and Mills also played at linebacker.
A week later, he ran for scores of 76, 48 and 75 yards in a 35-3 win at Port St. Lucie, gaining 198 yards on just five attempts. He also threw a touchdown pass to Josh Gaines. A week later, he hit Vino Thomas for a touchdown pass just a minute into a 40-0 win over Fort Pierce Westwood. Though the next game was a 34-33 loss, he scored four times against South Fork.
Having monitored his sugar since the age of 11, Mills has become adept at judging it even before testing his blood.
“I can tell where it’s at, if it’s high or if it’s low. When it’s low, I actually feel drowsy and sleepy. I’m not into it. If it’s high, I’m a little more moody and angry, so my coaches know. If they see it before I do, if I’m angry or anything, they tell me to check my sugar.”
And, as he said, football has gone smoothly, particularly since his play has been limited to offense. But there was a playoff game at Naples last year when things didn’t go so smoothly.
“I had no stamina. My sugar was getting high, and I couldn’t really comprehend what was going on,” he said. “At halftime, we checked it, and, sure enough, it was high. I took my insulin and it came back down.”
It was a rough night for the Naples defense, too. Mills ran for 348 yards, including a 50-yard fourth-quarter score to help the Panthers hold on for a 30-28 win. His struggle to get a feel for how the night was going extended to his own statistics.
“I was surprised. I didn’t really think I was doing all that well until after the game, when they told me what I had rushed for,” he said. “I was just playing football.”
That’s what his coaches have asked him to do, and, with the presence of Gaines and King, it has been magical for the Panthers.
“He’s a kid that’s fairly cool under pressure, and he’s a really good athlete,” Ainsley said. “When you’ve got an athlete back there, it really puts pressure on the defense.”
In last week’s season-opening 29-6 win at Merritt Island, there was that early-season highlight, Mills trapped in the backfield by four Mustangs defenders on fourth-and-3. But he wasn’t sacked, breaking free for a 34-yard touchdown run.
Next on the agenda is for Mills and his receivers to become more of a passing threat.
“He put in a ton of work in the summer toward being a complete quarterback,” Ainsley said. “We’re not quite there, but hopefully we can get there by the October stretch.”
Eau Gallie at Astronaut, 7
Melbourne CC at Satellite, 7
Western Branch at Cocoa, 7
Bolles at Heritage, 7
Lake Wales at Merritt Island, 7
Duval Charter at Rockledge, 7
Lake Howell at Space Coast, 7
Melbourne at Spruce Creek, 7
Titusville at Lake Brantley, 7
Cocoa Beach at Pine Ridge, 7
Holy Trinity at Harvest Community, 7
Master’s at Merritt Island Christian, 7
Ambassador Christian at Jordan Christian, 7
Viera at Allen, Texas, 8:30
Contact McCallum at 321-242-3698 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Brian_McCallum or facebook.com/FLtoday.brianmccallum.