UK Football

Kentucky offensive lineman refuses to let diabetes define, defeat him

Health, practice 'difficult to balance' for Nick Haynes, but long-term health most important, according to Stoops

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops addressed the health concerns and difficulties of offensive lineman Nick Haynes.
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Kentucky coach Mark Stoops addressed the health concerns and difficulties of offensive lineman Nick Haynes.

If dots could be connected in hindsight, maybe the picture would have been clearer sooner.

Growing up, Nick Haynes always was above average in weight and height.

“Now when I think back on it, he used to sweat before eating,” recalled his mother, DeDe Haynes. “Unbeknownst to me, that could have been a sign that his blood sugar was too high or low.”

Haynes’ father’s father had been diabetic, too.

Sometimes subtle signs go missed when your son is in the best physical shape of his life and preparing to start his first full season of playing on the offensive line at Kentucky after a redshirt year.

But when her phone rang in May 2014 and the dots started to mesh, DeDe Haynes had to focus hard on the lines and dashes on the highway.

“Mom, I don’t want you to run off the road or anything, but Nick’s at the hospital,” DeDe Haynes recalled hearing her daughter say as she made her way back from work in Alabama to their home in Florida.

Haynes went directly to the hospital to the news that her youngest son, a guard at UK, had a blood sugar spike so severe that it ended up keeping him in the hospital for three days.

“I just felt terrible,” Haynes would recall of that day in May when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “My blood sugar was out of this world. I had to get better before I could leave.”

When he finally got cleared to eat a meal, DeDe Haynes stared at the pint-sized pork chop and scoop of mashed potatoes on the tray and fretted.

Nick already had dropped 25 pounds off of his 326-pound frame in just a couple of days.

“Well, that little pork chop and potatoes is not going to do it,” she thought. “He needs to eat.”

Nick Haynes gave teammate Boom Williams a lift after the UK running back scored a touchdown in 2015. Mark Mahan

Since that day in 2014, Haynes has spent his time quietly battling the forces in his body that mandate testing his blood sugar four times a day and injecting himself with insulin.

“We knew we had to get together to make this work for him,” DeDe Haynes said of her son continuing to play Southeastern Conference football while battling diabetes.

That spring already had been trying for DeDe Haynes. Her mother was diagnosed with an illness in the spring, Nick was diagnosed in May and then her mother passed away in August before the Cats’ first game.

Dropping their youngest son back off at Kentucky so quickly after this life-altering diagnosis was hard on DeDe and Stephen Haynes, a retired master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, who himself was diagnosed with diabetes a few weeks after his son.

It took Nick’s diagnosis for Stephen’s own dots to conjoin.

DeDe called Nick regularly to check on his sugar levels and his food intake. She worried much like she did when he was little and they would discuss “stranger danger.”

Diabetes was a scary stranger to all of them.

“I was on pins and needles and he would say, ‘Mom, I got this,’” she said of the early years of the illness. “I know his heart is in football, so I can’t say he can’t go, but I needed a promise from the nutritionist and dietician and doctor and all of them, I needed to hear from them that you’re going to take care of my baby.”

‘I didn’t have the weight to depend on’

For the most part, Nick Haynes has been able to manage the illness and thrive.

The redshirt senior started in all 13 games last season at left guard, giving him 23 career starts in 34 games played without any serious issues.

“It’s very hard,” he admitted of managing his illness. “It’s incredibly difficult … keeping your carb count, staying on your diet. I have nutritionists around me all the time. It’s definitely a thing that’s a process.”

On game days, he has to make sure his blood sugar levels are normal. If he’s running high, he can have blurred vision and other side effects. Prone to dehydration and cramping, he gets intravenous fluids before and after games.

“In those coolers down there, there (are) insulin shots ready for him in the event something were to go the wrong way or if he needed that while he was playing,” DeDe Haynes said.

Yes, there are “precautions we take,” Nick Haynes said, “but I promise you it’s a lot smoother than what it sounds like. It’s something we’ve had to work around, but it’s not impeded me from playing this sport.”

Last season was a little more challenging after a virus during preseason camp caused him to lose almost 30 pounds.

“I played the whole season at 275,” he said of 2016, when he was part of an offensive line that blocked for two 1,000-yard rushers in Boom Williams and Benny Snell. “I’ve been this light for a while now, people just didn’t know it.”

Most people don’t know you can play sports and do what you want to do, not let something like this control your life. If you have a great plan, you can manage it.

Nick Haynes

Haynes, who graduated in May with a degree in economics and management and who is now working on a second degree in kinesiology, had to become a smarter player.

“It’s weird because I would say last year was my best year of football,” Haynes said. “It probably was, and I think it was because I didn’t have the weight to depend on, so I had to really learn everything.”

Haynes started becoming a more efficient player, a player who studies film looking for ways to offset an opponent’s bulk. He became a more skilled tactician playing at a smaller weight.

“He’s worked so much on his speed and his technique because of how much smaller he is,” fellow fifth-year senior offensive lineman Kyle Meadows said of Haynes. “The smaller you are the more technical you have to be because of the size advantage the other person has against you.”

But there were plenty of times when Haynes was able to get the best of the guy on the other side of the line even when that guy had 50-plus pounds on him.

“When I go out there and play, I know what’s going to happen before it happens,” Haynes said of his film study. “I tell people all the time, if you know what’s going to happen when you’re on the offensive line, that’s half the battle.”

Nick Haynes has a new battle at the start of this season.

Kentucky offensive guard Nick Haynes talks about also taking practice reps at center this spring.

Now at 260 pounds, the senior is working hard to put weight back on before the start of the season, but gaining the wrong kind of weight can be catastrophic for someone with his condition.

Haynes and Kentucky’s medical staff have a plan in place, Coach Mark Stoops said.

“We’re just monitoring how many reps he gets,” Stoops said. “Trying to get him some rest and check on his blood levels and all that. If he’s not really in good shape, then we’re not practicing him.

“He’s very smart. He’s been around awhile and has great experience. His health is most important to us. We’ll monitor that.”

Haynes believes that he will be able to get back up to the manageable 275 he played at last season before kickoff on Sept. 2 at Southern Miss.

“I’m taking more time to eat,” he said. “With four camp meals a day, I think I can get my weight back up pretty fast.”

It’s a daily battle that he finally decided to share publicly this season, especially after interning this summer at the UK Hospital and seeing kids dealing with diabetes, too.

“Most people don’t know you can play sports and do what you want to do, not let something like this control your life,” he said. “If you have a great plan, you can manage it.”

His mom agreed.

“His goal is to show people that you can do anything you want to do with diabetes,” DeDe Haynes said. “He just has it. It’s not who he is. It’s not a show stopper as long as he takes care of himself.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader