By John Brice
Four days in the hospital, three of them nights in the Intensive Care Unit.
Nine-year-old Ron Powlus III wasn’t sure what was wrong; at the time, nobody in his family knew. Nor did any medical personnel.
But a genuinely unquenchable thirst – hundreds of ounces of water per day – provided one of the most glaring clues.
“For me, when I was 9, it was summertime and one of the early symptoms of Type-1 diabetes is being extremely thirsty,” said Powlus III, whose father, former record-setting Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus, was then on staff as an assistant coach at Akron. “I was drinking like three gallons of water a day and still thirsty. So eventually we decided, ‘We probably need to get this figured out.’
“We went to the doctor and he decided to check my blood sugar. Since no one in my family had diabetes, we weren’t familiar with what that meant. The results came back at 400-something. I said to the doctor, ‘let’s fix it.’ But instead, the doctor said ‘the ambulance is on the way, you’re going to the hospital.’
“That’s kind of the origin of how it all happened.”
Those days and nights in the hospital confirmed the medical staff’s new suspicion that Powlus III had become the first in his family to be inflicted with Type-1 diabetes.
The experience and adapted lifestyle, however, did not thwart RP3’s desire to play multiple sports – he alternately starred as a youth in baseball, basketball and on the football field, same as his father.
“It was never a tremendous obstacle because he didn’t let become a tremendous obstacle,” said Ron Powlus, who started 46 games including postseason contests and had established 20 Fighting Irish records by the time he departed Notre Dame for a brief NFL career. “And we (father and mother, Sara) were supportive of his desire and drive to play sports.”
“It was something we dealt with and prepared for and incorporated into our plans, especially on days there were athletic competitions.”
As dad, once a coveted recruit out of Berwick, Pennsylvania for Lou Holtz and the Fighting Irish, sought to apply his knowledge of the game and then paved his pathway into coaching at Notre Dame, Akron and Kansas, RP3 continued to grow – physically taller and emotionally a more and more competitive, high-level athlete.
Along the way, RP3 simply continued to manage the process.
“He certainly has to manage his diabetes and all that goes with it, but he’s never been one to be really outward about it,” said Powlus, who has two sons, Ronnie and Tommy. “It’s just something he does. He’s gotta walk away to go give himself a shot of insulin because his blood sugar is high or he might be feeling dizzy from low blood sugar and need blast of juice. It probably showed up more in basketball, just the tempo of the sport and he became the biggest kid on the court, a leading rebounder, scorer, 3-point shooter, and he was just expending so much energy.”
As RP3 eventually grew to 6 feet, 3 inches in size, he alternately starred on the hardwood as well as the gridiron at nearby Penn High School. The family at one point thought a basketball career might be in the offing, but RP3 garnered football scholarship offers from a trio of Mid-American Conference programs as well as mid-pack Southeastern Conference resident Kentucky before Powlus III elected to follow in his father’s footsteps – as player and now as the senior associate athletics director for football – at Notre Dame.
The daily regimen – yes, that sometimes means practice-field shots — continues for RP3, a backup for Marcus Freeman’s 6-3 Fighting Irish and member of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ personal position group at quarterback.
“I did it in high school and have done it here,” Powlus III, who utilizes a DexCom monitor that transmits his blood sugar levels via Bluetooth to a phone in his quarterback belt pack, as well as to his parents and the Notre Dame athletic training staff, said. “A trainer may come up to me during practice and say, ‘Hey, your blood sugar is high, here’s a needle.’ And I’ll give myself an insulin shot. The trainers have been great and really supportive.
“With adrenaline, especially on our really intense days, it can make your blood sugar spike. You can get what’s called a false-high blood sugar, and that can be tricky. But, you put some insulin in and ride it out.”
Almost no one notices; Rees certainly just finds another eager student in his football laboratory.
“I’m really proud of Ronnie, and what he’s done; he’s got a role in this quarterback room,” Rees said. “He comes in, goes to work and the guy just never complains. It’s really neat to see and you see how much it means to him.”
Added starting signal-caller Drew Pyne, “Ronnie comes into our meetings every day ready to learn and then coming out here to practice every single day, sacrificing, I see him doing his medicine every day and have to be on top of all of that. And he doesn’t use one thing as an excuse. He does everything he can to be 100%. It’s just a testament to him. He doesn’t talk about it too much, but all he does is do his job and fights.
“That’s who he is and who he always will be.”
RP3, who supports United Health Service’s Diabetes Resource Center locally and last month donned custom-designed cleats to help raise awareness and funds for Cultivate Food Rescue, said there are all types of misperceptions usually about snacks.
“People think that Type-1 diabetics can’t eat sugar. That’s not true, you just have to cover it with insulin. I laugh when people are surprised and say, ‘oh, you can have chocolate?’ I just have to make sure I put in the right amount of insulin because my body can’t do it. Managing it at night is important so I can sleep well. One of the hardest things is during winter, when we have our early morning workouts, and I wake up and have high blood sugar. I feel horrible and then have to go workout, but it’s a balance.
“It’s a difficult balance, but I’ve got people around me to help.”
A difficult balance is virtually an unspoken tenet for a Notre Dame student-athlete, with academic rigors matching the demands of a respective sport.
RP3 is unfolding his journey with a smile. “Being diagnosed with T1D wasn’t the end of the story, it’s just part of my story.”
“He’s a thriving student-athlete at Notre Dame, and we’re tremendously proud of the work he’s put in and dedication he’s had to give himself this opportunity,” Ron Powlus said. “We’re thankful to Notre Dame and Notre Dame football to be here as part of this program and part of this great university.
“We obviously have a tremendous affinity for what Notre Dame means in our life, and to have him here is really meaningful. We’re extremely proud of what Ronnie has been able to accomplish to get here. It’s a really unique experience he’s living. We have 118 football student-athletes, and he’s like any of those guys, but around any corner, there’s that process of managing the diabetes. We’re proud of him.”
© 2022 The University of Notre Dame. All rights reserved.
By John Brice