TAMPA They came by the carload parents and children toting sports gear, small bags with ever-present needles and glucose meters, and big dreams.
A thousand miles to the north, a weekend of Super Bowl mania was reaching fever pitch in downtown Indianapolis. But here at the University of South Florida, the story was all about families flocking to an event with far more meaning to them than the mega-hyped showdown between the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
On this weekend, it was all about Super Sam and the kids.
Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Sam Fuld earned his nickname last season with one sensational diving and leaping catch after the next, even spawning a team promotion with a blue Super Sam cape giveaway.
To anyone attending his first annual Sam Fuld Diabetes Sports Camp on Friday and Saturday where more than 100 Bay-area youngsters refined skills in baseball, softball, basketball, football, soccer, tennis and cheerleading he earned it all over again for a different reason.
Just like his high-flying defensive exploits, Fuld went above and beyond in an effort to empower children with Type 1 diabetes, to give parents much-needed insight for helping their youngsters cope with the disease and provide hope for an athletic future with no barriers.
Nobody knows about that better than the 29-year-old from New Hampshire who was diagnosed at age 10 with Type 1 diabetes but never let it hold him back. He excelled in an all manner of competitive sports, became a baseball standout (not to mention a math wiz) at Stanford University and came to the Rays last year as part of a trade with the Chicago Cubs.
For most Tampa Bay fans, his name went largely unnoticed in the deal that sent pitching star Matt Garza to Chicago for five players. But all that quickly changed when Fuld made the Rays roster with an excellent spring training, then he turned heads in April with his spectacular defense and a hot bat that had him approaching .400 in the first month of the season spawning a playful catchphrase: The Legend of Sam Fuld.
I profiled Fuld for FOX Sports Florida during that first month and remember being struck by his candor in talking about diabetes how his parents did all they could to help him face the life-changing condition head on, how he never let it derail him from competitive sports and quickly embraced the major changes in his daily routines, doing his own blood pokes to test sugar levels and Insulin injections soon after his diagnosis.
He also spoke of wanting to get involved more deeply involved in the Tampa Bay area helping on the Type 1 diabetes front the primarily genetic form that differs from Type 2 diabetes, which is frequently in the news with its connection to diet and obesity.
It was impossible to talk to Fuld without coming away fully impressed with his intelligence, compassion and commitment to making a difference.
As fate would have it, he was about to make a difference in my own family.
In early June, barely six weeks after my story appeared, I had just returned from Los Angeles. I was there to visit the oldest of six kids my wife Janie and I have and write about the Rays road trip in Anaheim against the Angels.
The Thursday I got back to town, I took Janie and the other kids out to dinner, making nothing of the fact that our youngest - son Davey, then 9 - couldnt seem to drink enough soda and asked me to take him to the bathroom three times during the course of the meal.
That Sunday evening, he got sick to his stomach. After raising his five older sisters (ranging in age from 27 to 13), Janie and I have seen just about all kinds of viruses and flu strains. This looked like your garden variety stomach bug, and we treated it overnight accordingly: no food, and just sipping on soda sporadically. We noticed he couldnt seem to get enough to drink yet remained extremely dehydrated.
By morning, he was so weak he could hardly sit up and his face had become startlingly gaunt virtually overnight.
A harried trip to his pediatrician followed by 8 a.m., and I carried him from the car inside the waiting room because he was too weak to walk on his own. His physician, Dr. Alyssa Weinberger, had been seeing a rash of stomach virus cases in recent days, but she was suspicious and ordered a blood sugar test. When the equipment couldnt get a reading, the doctor knew what we were dealing with Daveys blood sugar was through the roof and we had to get to All Childrens Hospital in St. Petersburg as quickly as possible.
Once in the emergency room, hooked to a maze of tubes and monitors, the doctor on duty confirmed that his blood sugar was 1,062 well beyond the 70-120 range. Davey indeed had Type I Diabetes, and spent the next full day in intensive care drifting in and out of sleep. He was parched and famished, his voice barely audible amid the extreme discomfort of constant shots and blood draws.
An avid Rays fan and active Little Leaguer, he didnt have any interest in watching the Rays shut out Boston on his hospital room TV that night.
By the next day, his numbers had begun to even out enough that he could eat a real meal again, but the gravity of everything that had happened had left him shaken and confused. Its not easy for a 10-year-old kid to process such a profound, instantaneous change almost overnight. A specialist arrived to explain how his life would be different now. He listened quietly but later refused to watch videos on the hospitals closed-circuit TV channel featuring kids of various ages dealing with diabetes.
I dont want to have diabetes, he said.
But I remembered my interview with Fuld from barely six weeks earlier and left word with the Rays public relations staff to let him know about Davey.
An hour before we checked out of the hospital one day later, the phone rang in his room.
I answered and recognized the voice saying, Is Davey there?
I handed him the phone, and the change in his countenance was amazing, a mixture of surprise and delight. He had followed the Legend of Sam Fuld as closely as anyone I knew and constantly mimicked his diving, sliding catches on the wooden floors of our house.
The conversation couldnt have lasted more than a minute, but it made a world of difference to a little boy trying to make sense of a new way of life suddenly being thrust upon him.
Mom, Dad, it was Sam Fuld! he reported excitedly when the call ended. He said, Hang in there!
I spoke briefly with Fuld before he hung up to thank him, and he extended an offer to bring Davey to a Rays game at the Trop when he was feeling up to it. Three weeks later, Janie and I did just that. To see the way Fuld connected with a child one about the age he himself was when he was diagnosed was remarkable indeed. And the insight he shared with us as parents was equally valuable.
In the months that followed, Davey donned his No. 5 Fuld T-shirt more than any other in his collection, and hr even adopted his batting stance. What we could see as parents was the enormous power of a child in Daveys situation having a role model, someone who proves that anything is possible no matter what challenges lie ahead.
Fuld, indeed, had such a player in former Boston pitcher Bill Gullickson, who had not let Type 1 diabetes hold him back from a successful major league career. At age 12, Fulds father with the help of a mutual acquaintance had taken him to meet Gullickson before a game, and the short meeting had a lasting impact on the child.
Gullicksons complete willingness to offer some helpful advice inspired Fuld and made him determined to help others when he was in a position to do so.
Davey was the fortunate beneficiary of Fulds mission to make a difference in the lives of children and families touched by diabetes.
This past weekend, his mission moved to a whole new level.
Late Friday afternoon, dozens upon dozens of parents and kids arrived at Fulds charter sports camp, conducted in conjunction with Dr. Henry Rodriguez, medical director of the renowned USF Diabetes Center and with the support of USF Athletics and Florida Diabetes Camps run by Gary Cornwell.
Kids of all ages showed up eagerly to the non-sleepover camp to check at USFs Muma Center, receive an official T-shirt and get set for introductions by Fuld and Rodriguez before heading off for a night of bowling and pizza.
Campers with diabetes were invited to bring along a pal or sibling without diabetes to reduce initial nerves about taking part. The move by the camp paid instant dividends keeping the atmosphere fun and stress-free from the outset as children raced up and down the basketball court waiting for the event to start.
The kids let out a huge cheer when Fuld was introduced, and they sat so quietly you could hear a pin drop when he addressed them.
Guys, thank you so much for coming out here. I cant tell you how excited I am to see all the faces here, he began. The first time through, I had no idea if wed have 10 kids or 100. And Im so excited to be able to participate in this.
Also participating were an array of athletes who have coped with Type 1 diabetes in their own lives a roll call including former tennis pros Gen King and Mike Findlings, former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Stacey Simmons, ex-Nova Southeastern University basketball player Chad Bobik and one-time hoops pro Lew Finnegan, former Jesuit High baseball and football star David Ochotorena, current Florida International University softball catcher Jenny Welch, USF kicker and soccer goalie Renato Proia and others. Though his friend Jay Cutler, quarterback of the Chicago Bears and a Type 1 diabetic, couldnt make it, he still sent a box of autographed items.
In addition, the support staff included nurses from the Tampa Bay area and an arsenal of counselors from Florida Diabetes Camps to be on hand to facilitate activities and provide immediate assistance if needed blood draws, shots or sugar-boosting snacks for any camper during the weekend.
This was especially reassuring to Janie and me, because Davey had yet to administer his own blood-draws to check his readings with a glucose meter. Weve been encouraging him to take the big step, but hes been reluctant to press the spring-loaded needle into his own fingers. So weve been doing it for him four and five times each day. We knew hed be in great hands here and many of them.
Meanwhile, Dr. Rodriguez marveled at the turnout Friday evening.
When we first sat down, Sam came to visit the center and said, Id really like to do something with you guys, he recounted. We talked about different things and the idea of a camp, and I honestly told him, Sam, if you just want to promote it, and put your name on it, wed appreciate it. If you want to become more involved, that would be terrific.' And boy, he took it and he ran with it.
He called anybody he could think of who was an athlete with Type 1 diabetes or knew somebody. And hes said he wants to continue to do this even if, God forbid, he ever gets traded to a different team. Hes going to continue to work with us.
Highlights of the camp abounded. A few that stand out:
The parents session held Friday night when the kids bowled. Fuld related his life story and conducted a Q-and-A with parents hungering to learn from his experiences with their young athletes. When he shared that he often tests his blood three times during the course of a game, a parent urged him to stress that to the campers. When he described how he always found diabetes to be a conversation starter with his teammates growing up, rather than trying to hide it, another parent enthusiastically yelled, Oh, say that tomorrow!
The sports sessions held throughout Saturday. Each began with one of the athletes taking 15 minutes to tell their own story with diabetes and how theyve handled its challenges.
The late-afternoon closing ceremonies at USFs soccer stadium. They were preceded with Rays Street with Rays mascot Raymond mingling with campers, who engaged in hitting, throwing and jumping activities provided by the major league club. Then came a special cheerleading demonstration on the field by a dozen or so young girls who devised their own Thank you, Sam! chant.
Fuld beamed from the bleachers as a film crew from the MLB Network followed his every move. Then he introduced a familiar athlete who had just arrived, Rays 2011 All-Star rightfielder Matt Joyce. The crowd erupted in loud cheers and applause for the Tampa native whod come to lend his support to his friend.
Matt is not diabetic, but dont hold that against him, Fuld quipped to a wave of laughter.
A brief awards ceremony followed, with autographed items from Fuld, Cutler, Rays star Ben Zobrist and others given away including a handful of prizes to campers in a Guess the B.S. contest, in which winners came from those closest to guessing Fulds blood-sugar level.
After Fuld gave his heart-felt thank-yous, Joyce grabbed the mic and asked for a round of applause for his Rays teammate.
I didnt know much about diabetes until you joined the team, but I got a little snippet of what you go through on a daily basis, Joyce said to Fuld. Its been inspirational to us, the guys who see what youre able to accomplish and everything you have to deal with on and off the field. So, were really proud of you. This camp is a great cause and keep it up. We love you.
Another spirited ovation followed, along with closing remarks of appreciation by Dr. Rodriguez. And as families departed, Fuld finally had a chance to catch his breath.
Its really gratifying, he said. I didnt know what to expect, any time you do something like this first time around. I knew that whatever the numbers were, theyd have a good time. This weekend was the fun part the hard part was the coordination and setup. This part was the icing on the cake. Its been great to see the reaction from the kids and the parents.
Fuld was particularly glad to have a chance to connect with parents, because theyre sort of the lost part of the equation sometimes. I know my parents were probably more nervous about my diagnosis than I was. I dont lose sight of that, and I try to make sure I can help out not just the kids but anybody associated with them.
His most memorable moments?
Ill tell you, I was close to tearing up during that cheer, he said. It was pretty cool. But the whole day is what Ill remember just interacting on a one-on-one basis and seeing this whole bleacher section filled up with everybody. This is the first time Ive ever been around this many diabetics, and its a little overwhelming. Just to have everybody together who can share that common bond is amazing.
Off to the side, a group of coaches Finnegan, Ochotorena and Simmons took it all in, reflecting on how they learned from each other over the weekend, just as the kids were learning and absorbing.
The most important thing is the kids get to be around each other, Ochotorena said. They learn from each other, spent time around other athletes who have to go through the same things and learn that it can be done. It can be managed. If you stay on top of it, you can do whatever you want.
In fact, Davey did something hed never done before.
With the encouragement of a counselor, he gave himself his own blood poke and tested his glucose readings the first time ever proudly informing us of the feat when we caught up to him at the end of camp.
He repeated the achievement Sunday night at home while we watched the Giants beat the Patriots in our book, the play of the game from a Super weekend indeed.