On a warm July evening in a sunlit gymnasium on a woodsy campground, Matthew Jordan gave encouragement, signed dozens of autographs and shook his booty. All three acts delighted Camp Kudzu, which serves children and teens with whom Jordan shares a disease that has no known cure.
The Georgia Tech quarterback was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes almost 10 years ago, and he credits the discipline required to manage the disease for his successes. They include his business-administration degree, earned in 3 ½ years, and his likely status as the Yellow Jackets’ next starting quarterback.
That pride wove through a message he gave last Wednesday at the camp, held at Camp Twin Lakes, a nonprofit that provides camping experiences to children with serious illnesses, disabilities and other life challenges.
“One more thing I’d like to say,” Jordan told the assembly of roughly 150, including campers, counselors and medical staff. “I’ve heard this from a couple people: They’re kind of scared to say they’re diabetic, they’re kind of embarrassed of it, things like that. I’m not one of those kinds of people. If anything, I’m proud of it.”
The visit clearly impacted Jordan, too. Diagnosed at 11, Jordan said he didn’t meet another Type 1 diabetic until he got to college.
“It makes me feel good to know that I’m making them feel better, because I didn’t have that,” Jordan told the AJC at the end of his visit. “Like I said, I didn’t have anybody to look up to. I just want to give them somebody to say, ‘Hey, he’s done it. I can do it, too.’”
Type 1 diabetes, once known as juvenile diabetes, is a condition in which the body produces little or no insulin, a hormone necessary to process blood sugar. It requires continual monitoring of blood-sugar level and injections of insulin. It affects about 1.25 million Americans, according to the American Diabetes Association. It can raise the risk of blindness, major-organ damage and amputation.
During his visit, which included dinner with staff and then his message to the campers in the gym, he didn’t have to explain any of that, speaking the language of diabetes with no need for translation. That alone seemed to elicit a thrill from campers as he fielded questions about his disease management. What is his blood-sugar level? Did he use an insulin pump or take shots? What does he do when he feels his blood-sugar level dropping? How does he manage it while he plays games?
“I wear a Dexcom CGM,” said Jordan, referring to a subcutaneous monitor that he wears. The response was as though he’d announced lights out had been pushed back one hour. “I know – it’s one of the best things since sliced bread.”
He posed for pictures and signed more autographs than he had ever signed at Tech’s fan day, he told camp director Alex Allen. He signed camper ID badges, backpacks, shirts and even a forehead.
“Actually, a lot of insulin pumps,” he said. “That was a first.”
A cabin of teen girls was particularly taken with Jordan, possessed of a musclebound frame and a broad smile. The girls (one of whom privately described him as “man candy”) implored him to “shake your booty,” a request he granted with a modest wiggle. They asked if he could return next year as a counselor, prompting the entire gym to erupt in a chant of “COUNSELOR! COUNSELOR!”
“Tell you what,” Jordan said. “If you can get Coach (Paul) Johnson to let me miss a week of workouts, I’ll come be a counselor.”
A ponytailed eight-year-old girl, dressed in a pink leotard for the camp talent show following Jordan’s appearance, asked if she could take his blood-sugar count. With a buddy, she came out of the crowd with her measurement device.
“It’s really cool,” said the girl, Charlotte Sessions, of her connection with Jordan. “I have something that most people don’t have. It’s really cool to have someone famous have what I have.”
The impact of the visit was clear to Jackson Haas, a counselor and Auburn undergrad from Smyrna (and the son of Tech grads). He has been a camper since the age of eight.
“Being able to see a figure like that, who you see on the TV and you see thriving and being successful and showing that, whatever diabetes may mean to you, it’s not the end of the world, you can thrive with it and you can be everything you want to be – people like Matt are superheroes to these kids,” Haas said.
To the world of Jackets fans, Jordan has other pressing engagements this summer. He has daily treatment sessions with the Tech sports-medicine staff to heal a foot injury that he suffered halfway through spring practice. The injury, which he declined to specify, required surgery, but is healing well, he said. He has been taking part in 7-on-7 passing sessions with the team and expects to be fully cleared for practice when Tech’s preseason training begins in early August.
“I’m very excited about (the season),” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”
Jordan was to return to Camp Kudzu this week to talk to another session. Meeting children with diabetes is nothing new for Jordan. Going back to high school, he has reached out to children who have been diagnosed with the disease to encourage and educate. In the future, he said, he would like to get involved in fundraising and maybe even coordinate a camp like Camp Kudzu.
If so, perhaps he’ll be fortunate to have a guest speaker as impactful as one at Camp Kudzu last Wednesday.
“He inspired them because he’s cool, and that falls well within our mission,” said Allen, the camp director who founded the camp in 1999. “The kids get a lot out of that. When they go home, they may remember his name, they may not, but they’ll remember the message.”