Reese's Son Riley Inspires Maryland's JDRF Game
On March 27, 2012, seven-year-old Riley Reese was feeling pain in his abdomen and had been drinking more water than usual.
"Why are you doing that?" his mother Cathy Reese wanted to ask. "It's almost like you know what's going on, you have an inkling, but you don't want to go down that path."
Reese, who led Maryland to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA championship the previous two seasons, winning her first title as head coach in 2010, had seen all the warning signs: excessive thirst and frequent urination.
After taking her son to the doctor for blood and urine tests the morning of the Terps' 13-3 win over Towson, she received a devastating phone call on her ride home from College Park, Md. Riley needed to go to the emergency room immediately.
"His blood sugar numbers were through the roof," said the 1998 Maryland graduate, who soon discovered her son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, a "hidden disease" as she describes it.
They spent the next two days in the hospital learning how to manage blood sugar levels, give shots and administer a glucagon in case of emergency. However, the first day, despite having limited knowledge of diabetes after her college teammate and roommate Kathleen Lund was diagnosed when they were sophomores in 1996, Reese wasn't prepared for what was to come.
"The nurse gave me the needle and said you need to give him a shot," said Reese. "He just screamed and cried and said, 'Don't do this to me mom. Don't do this to me.' So of course, I was a giant mess, crying. I can't do this. ... It's hard to come to terms as a parent when you see it to actually believe it's your kid."
But after bribing her son with a new Lego set, Riley received his first insulin shot of many. It became a part of his – and his family's – life. It was constant pricking of his finger at least 10 times each day and getting shots every time he wanted to eat. It meant waking up in the middle of the night to check blood sugar levels and checking them before, during and after any athletic activity.
Maryland coach Cathy Reese and her son Riley on the sideline last spring's JDRF game against Rutgers. (John Strohsacker)
"Now, you're dependent on insulin to be your lifeline," said Reese. "It's amazing how within a couple days, it became a part of life. When I say he is a total rock star, he is. He doesn't let it hold him back from anything."
That summer, his parents found out he also had celiac disease, meaning he had a gluten allergy, so the Reese family began eating gluten-free. But everything became much harder one year after his diabetes diagnosis, when this year's Maryland seniors were freshmen. Riley was hospitalized for 31 days at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., due to a virus.
He lost nearly 20 pounds. He couldn't walk. He received a PICC line in his arm for fluids and food. His doctors didn't know what was wrong with the young Terp fan.
It was during that tough time that Reese was thankful for her Maryland family. She tried to attend practices, but instead, the team came to her. The Terps made Riley a blanket with the Terps logo on it and parents made meals. After Reese hadn't seen a smile on her son's face in weeks, the minute the current upperclassmen walked in his room, his mood changed. Reese said the girls helped bring life back to her son.
"Watching him go from the lowest of lows to slowly getting better was a really happy moment just to know that they finally figured what was wrong with him," said current senior Taylor Cummings. "[To hear] he was going to be OK and return to old Riley was really the best news that we could receive."
Last year, after Reese led the Terps to its second straight national title, then-freshman Megan Whittle recalled a saying that her coach had told the team: "If you strive for perfection, you'll land among excellence."
After pondering her own words, Reese realized no one can be perfect just like the team can't win every game or score every goal. While the virus wasn't related to diabetes, the hospitalization put everything into perspective. There's more to life than lacrosse. There's more to life than the little things every mom stresses out about every day.
"I just want to be the best that I can be," she said. "With work and parenting, it's never going to be perfect. ... Stop getting jammed up over the fact that my house is a mess. We stress ourselves out as moms over that."
"Dinner isn't perfect. I'm not a great cook and I know that, but I'm just trying to feed my kids. It's a successful night if we get dinner," she laughed. "Try to recognize we're doing the best that we can. Try to make the most out of the opportunities that we're given and enjoying the journey that we're on, which is something I say to my team all the time because it goes by fast."
Today, Riley plays football, basketball and lacrosse. While Reese may never sleep through the night, technology has made it easier on her and husband Brian, another Maryland grad and current Chesapeake Bayhawks coach, to monitor his blood sugar levels.
He wears an insulin pump that can be controlled from a remote control, which is linked to a CGM device (continuous glucose monitor) that provides updated levels directly to his parents' cell phones.
"If I see his levels are low when he's at school and he doesn't text me back, you start to worry and then you become the psycho parent," said Reese. "You don't want to be that way because you want to trust he's doing what he needs to do, but it's just amazing where technology's gone from when we were playing and it was left to the player going through it, [asking] how are you feeling.... Things have definitely changed for the positive."
Cummings described the Reeses like an extended family for the Terps. Her teammates all knew they wanted to play for her and Riley, eliminating any additional stress, because they had watched her four kids – Riley, now 11, Brody, 9, Cayden, 8, and Braxton, 4 – grow up before their own eyes.
"Why we all love her so much is partially because she's like a second mom to us," said Cummings. "We love to just be with them and hang out and embrace that Braxton is a 4-year-old who loves to play with power rangers so we act like Nylock and he'll battle us. Cayden loves to dance, and Riley and Brody are super into sports, so we'll throw a football around with them or have a dance party in the locker room."
It was on April 4, 2015, that the team decided to host its first JDRF Awareness Game against Rutgers to raise money in support of the leading global organization funding Type 1 diabetes research. The Terps involved him in all pregame and postgame activities from the coin toss to signing autographs.
This Saturday, against James Madison, Maryland is hosting its second annual JDRF game and has raised nearly $10,000 for the cause. Riley will be the honorary captain.
"He gets super excited because it's a day dedicated to him," said Cummings. "We're excited to go out and play for something bigger than ourselves. We always say we play for something bigger than ourselves because we play for the University of Maryland and we play for the state of Maryland, but for this game in particular, we get to play for a foundation that's doing awesome things."
While Reese may view parenting as "the hardest thing in the world," not just for her, but for all parents, Cummings can't help but notice how strong she is as a mom and a coach.
"You could tell she hadn't slept and she was tired, but she never once let it falter her. I think that's a really big testament to the kind of person she is," said Cummings. "No mom is perfect and I think she knows there are going to be mistakes, there are going to be fights and her kids won't hatch perfectly, but the same thing applies to us. We're not going to make every play, we're not going to all catch the ball, throw the ball, score, win. That's not what she's shooting for. She's just shooting for making both her kids and our team better people."
As Maryland looks to three-peat and as Cummings could become the first-ever three-time Tewaaraton winner following this season, it's always been family-first for the Terps.
"Lacrosse is such a small portion, and an important one, but there are bigger things in life," said Cummings. "Hold your friends. Hold your family. Tell them you love them."
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