All-Star Race

NASCAR owner Joe Gibbs still in control - of diabetes

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMay 16, 2013 


NASCAR team owner and former NFL coach Joe Gibbs had been deadling with diabetes since being diagnosed during 1991, the year he last won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins.

JEFF SINER — Buy Photo

  • Facts about diabetes

    • Diabetes affects 25.8 million people, or approximately 8.3 percent of the population.

    • Among U.S. residents aged 65 years and older, 10.9 million, or 26.9 percent, had diabetes in 2010.

    • Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure, non-traumatic lower-limb amputations, and new cases of blindness among adults in the United States.

    • Diabetes is a major cause of heart disease and stroke.

    • Diabetes is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States.

    SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011 Diabetes Factsheet

    Want to know more?

    • Defy Diabetes was formed to connect people living with diabetes or those at risk for diabetes with the tools needed to deal with their disease and make informed, healthy choices. For more information, visit

    • The American Diabetes Association funds research to prevent, cure and manage diabetes and delivers services to hundreds of communities. For more information, visit or call 800-DIABETES.

— Joe Gibbs’ life has been full of memorable chapters.

Two stints as coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins produced three Super Bowl victories.

He won three titles as a team owner in what now is NASCAR’s premiere Sprint Cup Series.

A devout Christian, he shares a faith-based blueprint for success through his “Game Plan for Life” ministry.

But there’s one story Gibbs, 72, hasn’t shared other than with those closest to him. He’s not even sure his Cup series drivers – Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth – know. Same for the players he coached with the Redskins.

For more than 20 years, while living his life at a relentless pace, he has kept the story quiet. Until now.

Gibbs, since late 1991, has lived as an insulin-dependent, Type II diabetic.

But Gibbs, long known for his work ethic, has lived his life so relentlessly that if he didn’t talk about being a diabetic, most never would know.

“I know why people tend not to talk about it,” Gibb said. “You think people will look at you differently or wonder if you can hold down a job. People conjure up all kinds of things.”

By sharing his story, he hopes to educate people with diabetes, and those who don’t have it. He wants everyone to know that the lifestyle-changing diagnosis doesn’t have to be a prescription for limitations.

“I probably could help people more than I have when I got to thinking about it,” he said. “The good news for all of us is that you can lead an absolutely normal life and live the length of life, if you’re in control of your disease.”

Gibbs is living proof.

It started with a tingle

In the final season of Gibbs’ first stint with the Redskins, he said, long work days and little sleep translated into bad eating habits, and he knew he needed to shed a few pounds.

One day, after running on the treadmill, he had a tingling sensation in both legs from the knees down. It was his first noticeable symptom.

After doctors confirmed his blood sugar levels were too high, Gibbs was urged to lose 25 to 30 pounds and prescribed diabetic medications.

But getting control of the disease with his lifestyle proved difficult.

“The bottom line was that I was battling on the edge all the time and my blood sugar stayed up and so eventually the doctors said I had to go on insulin,” he said. “For me personally, it was probably good because (of) my eating style and everything that I did.

“I was kind of working like a horse and looked like a horse.”

Doctors switched Gibbs to insulin shots, meaning he had to carry a small kit with him, containing a blood sugar monitor, testing supplies and insulin.

Gibbs reacted as you would expect a coach to react: He took charge of his illness, like he would a team.

“You wind up having to coach yourself,” Gibbs said. “I’ve learned so many things by making a mistake. Then you go back, you start studying and you ask questions.”

Now Gibbs generally tests his blood sugar seven to eight times daily, including every night promptly two hours after he goes to bed.

If you paid close enough attention to Gibbs sitting atop one of his team’s pit boxes, you might see him crouch over to test himself or give himself an injection.

What you won’t see is Gibbs slowing down.

Still driving forward

Today, Gibbs oversees a NASCAR operation with upwards of 450 employees, works with his ministry and enjoys time with his eight grandchildren. He does so with no outward signs of his illness.

“There is so much to this disease,” Gibbs said. “You’re never going to get over it. You’re going to deal with it forever and yet you wonder where do you go to get all the information and everything that you need?

“If you have a platform and you have the finances to be able to do some things, you probably need to really be trying to help, because you hear all kinds of horror stories.”

Last year, an investment group Gibbs worked with bought a company called Sanare, a healthcare products and services company specializing in diabetes.

To provide a more comprehensive approach to diabetes care, the healthcare company began an awareness program, “Defy Diabetes,” to provide the tools – medicine and support – diabetics need to battle their disease.

The CEO of Sanare, Tim Hargarten – who also refers to himself as the “Chief Defiant” – encouraged Gibbs to share his story.

“There is a misnomer that people get diabetes because they’re fat and lazy,” Hargarten said. “People generally keep it to themselves.

“You don’t have to have done something wrong to get the disease.”

Gibbs, Hargarten said, is evidence of that.

“Joe is a great icon for this movement,” Hargarten said. “His involvement was an opportunity to reach a much larger audience. And I have to say he jumped at it.”

During February, Defy Diabetes sponsored an entry of one of Gibbs’s drivers, Darrell Wallace Jr., in the Truck series opener at Daytona.

It was the start of what Hargarten and Gibbs hope is a lasting movement to educate diabetics about the limitless potential of their lives.

“There is help. You can achieve all the things you want to achieve in life,” Hargarten said.

“Don’t believe me? Just ask Joe Gibbs.”

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