Yale football player, back for his fifth reunion, headed for life in medicine
While playing football for Yale and simultaneously managing his Type 1 diabetes, Roy Collins IV ’13 B.S. found his life’s calling. He would devote himself to finding new ways to approach diabetes care — ways that accounted for a person’s lifestyle and habits. By the time of his graduation, he’d decided to pursue a master’s degree in public health, and, now, a medical degree.
The Houston native was first recruited to Yale from Choate Rosemary Hall by former football coach Jack Siedlecki. The bucolic boarding school in Wallingford, Conn., where Collins was team captain and MVP, afforded him plenty of opportunities to visit his sister Shakira Sanchez-Collins ’08 B.A., ’11 M.Div. at Yale, and imagine his future at the university. At Choate, the 260-pound, 6’ 5” athlete played defensive end, but at Yale he became an offensive lineman. He faced challenges from more than just his chronic health condition. His team went through three coaches — Siedlecki, who retired in 2008 , Tom Williams, who stepped down in 2011, and Tony Reno — the current Joel E. Smilow ’54 Head Coach of Yale Football. This sudden change in leadership was a rollercoaster experience, but it brought the players together.
“My football teammates are by far my closest friends,” says Collins, who returned to Yale last weekend for his fifth reunion. “We bled, laughed, cried, and had a whole range of emotions together. We went from losing our coach and tough games to great moments. We were growing and maturing as young men and using our abilities to come together as a unit.”
His reunion offered Collins the chance to reconnect, apart from social media, and find out how these lifelong friends have carved their own paths. “I like to see how everyone has found their purpose, and the different ways they express the things that are important to them,” he says.
Collins was diagnosed with diabetes at age 13, and had to track his blood sugar levels at every practice and game to make sure that they didn’t drop too low or spike too high. Diabetes prevents the body from producing enough insulin, a necessary hormone for converting sugars, starches and other food into energy. Anything from stress, to sleep, to time of day can impact blood sugar levels — certainly, rigorous training sessions, and four- to six-hour football games.
“My blood sugar rises with adrenaline,” Collins says. “So it might be high at the beginning of a game but then crash during the pre-game stretch.” To further complicate matters, it’s much harder to bring blood sugar levels down, he says, than up. So he would aim for low — but not too low, or he’d be fatigued and jittery. He had to test his levels a couple times per quarter, and administer insulin injections when necessary.
While Collins’ mom is a pediatrician, and medicine has always been in the back of his mind as a career path, it wasn’t until he began thinking deeply about the intersection between diabetes and athletics while at Yale, and trying to better manage his own condition, that Collins decided to pursue a medical degree. In stories written about him during his undergraduate days, publications like the New Haven Register noted that Collins was interested in finding ways to make the road easier for other athletes with his condition.
Five years since graduating from Yale with a B.S. in biology, Collins has earned an M.P.H. in epidemiology from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and is now pursuing a doctorate from the St. Louis University School of Medicine.
Part of his master’s program involved a return to Texas Children’s Hospital, where he’d first been diagnosed, to help design scientifically backed surveys that would indicate if a child with diabetes who is readying for college and life away from home is prepared to take on their own diabetes management and care.
“When children leave home, they leave the nest where they have parents and others looking out for them,” Collins says.
The digital survey that Collins helped design and code indicates through easy-to-answer questions and a simple color response — red for no, yellow for partial, green for yes — a child’s readiness for self-care. He’s involved with New Haven-based Fitscript, which produces an app called GlucoseZone that helps diabetics manage their condition through exercise. And in his doctoral studies Collins is focusing on psychiatry and the role of psychosocial elements like stress and depression in managing one’s diabetes.
Throughout his life’s journey, Collins says, one lesson he learned as a Bulldog has particularly stuck with him — the rallying cry “Sudden Change.” Players and coaches used it to describe being ready to react with decisive purpose whenever something unexpected happened — a turnover, an interception, an injured teammate.
“The lesson is you can’t spend a lot of time worrying about what has happened, but you can react in an advantageous way,” Collins says.