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Coach helps children tackle type 1 diabetes

DETROIT – Brandon Denson, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, was 17 years old when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

His mother burst into tears.

"I knew my life was going to be drastically changed," Denson said.

But Denson, a four-sport athlete, was determined not to let diabetes derail his dreams of the playing field or anywhere else.

He made his mother a promise that day.

"I said, 'No matter what, we're going to get through this, and I'm going to be all right.'  And she looked me in my eyes and I looked in her eyes, and it was just one of those moments, 'Look, everything is going to be OK,'" he said.

Thirteen years later, Denson has kept that promise, and then some.

As a freshman at Michigan State University, he made the football team as a walk-on. The following year, he won a full scholarship. He went on to play the rest of his collegiate career.

"It made me push harder and harder to achieve some of those things that people say can't happen living with T1D," Denson said.

After college, he played football in the Canadian Football League and then the NFL.

Last year, he took on a new challenge: competing on "American Ninja Warrior."

He competed without a shirt on, a conscious decision on his part -- not to show off his muscles, but to show everyone his continuous glucose monitor and the site where he attaches his insulin pump.

"I wanted parents to see, I wanted kids that live with T1D, I wanted them to see, because I wanted to show them, like, I'm just like them. I'm a little bit bigger, a little bit older, but I'm just like them," he said.

Denson works as a regional ambassador for JDRF, sharing his story and talking to families living with the challenges of type 1 diabetes.

His message to kids is simple.

"Never let anybody tell you that you can't do something," Denson said.

Denson is now working at Voyageur Academy, a charter school in Detroit. He teaches discipline and also coaches football.

"Being in the inner city, sometimes it is hard. There's a lot of distractions going on that they have no control over. But I feel like it's our obligation to society, is to help out, and I try to do everything I can," Denson said.

He hopes he can inspire children and teenagers facing any challenge to keep pushing ahead.

"I try to teach them (that) it's not about making excuses, but at the end of the day, it's about using what you have and going as far as you can," Denson said. "It's all about effort. Control what you can control and put your maximum effort in anything, and if you do that and you fail, you're not a failure at the end of the day. You just have to work harder."

The JDRF One Walk to support diabetes research will be held Sunday, Sept. 17.