As a 15-year-old playing in the youth ranks at Cambridge United, Ben Coker was knocked unconscious for a few moments one game.He recovered almost instantly but, in the days that followed, he was consumed by an unquenchable thirst and a constant need to urinate.
A blood test confirmed his mum’s suspicion – her son had Type 1 diabetes. Knowing nothing about it, Coker had one burning question he needed the hospital doctor to answer – “Can I play football on Saturday?”
A simple question, but like all promising sportsmen and women, young Ben wanted to know that he didn’t have to give up on his dream.
Thankfully, he received the answer he craved. Eleven years on and Coker is now giving that same answer to others. As an ambassador for Diabetes UK, the Southend United left-back visits schools and hospitals in Essex to offer reassurance to children and their parents that life with diabetes can be played out to the full.
His work has earned him the accolade of being named the Sky Bet Football League Unsung Hero of the Month for February.
It says much about the affable 26-year-old that he wants Southend, currently 10th in Sky Bet League 1, to gain a second successive promotion this season – not just for the glory but also because it would give him a loftier platform from which to help others.
Coker said: “Anything I can do to help the young kids is good. I hadn’t really thought of doing anything before, mainly because as a footballer in the lower leagues you don’t think that anyone’s necessarily going to take notice of you.
“But now that Southend are going up the leagues, I’m a little bit higher profile, so hopefully I can get the message out there that you can live with diabetes and that you can play sport at a high level. This award is great recognition for myself and the club but really we are just doing our jobs.
“I want to try and help as many people as I can. I went to Southend Hospital recently and saw a lot of kids who have diabetes. Sometimes you can see it in their little faces that they are worried about it.
“When I was younger, I was exactly the same. I didn’t know what it was, which can be quite scary at the time. I just try to tell them that you can live with it if you look after yourself and listen to the doctors.
“The kids can be a little bit shy but I can speak to the mums and dads about diabetes. They are the ones who are more worried about it because it is a life-threatening illness if you don’t look after yourself.
“I know that when I got diagnosed my mum was really worried. So for me to be able to talk to the parents and tell them that it’s going to be alright is massively important.”
Coker’s value to Diabetes UK comes not only from his profile as a footballer, but also from his willingness to embrace the task of helping others to understand that diabetes does not have to limit your ambitions.
Chris Askew, CEO of Diabetes UK, said: “Ben is a great support to Diabetes UK. He is a fantastic influence for other young people with Type 1 diabetes and proof that it needn't stop you fulfilling your dreams.”
Coker is one of 350,000 Type 1 diabetes sufferers in the UK, although not many have a similar Saturday afternoon routine.
For the first 10 years after he was first diagnosed, the defender - like former Tottenham captain and England international Gary Mabbutt - had to inject himself with insulin and carry a needle into the changing room with him.
Thankfully, advances in technology mean that Coker now wears an insulin pump which pumps insulin around his body throughout the day. He still has to monitor his levels constantly, especially after eating carbohydrates.
He added: “As a sportsman, the pump is a massive help. It does everything for me. Of course the diabetes affects me. You have to always keep on top of it. It’s not easy. You have to always monitor your sugar levels and what you’re going to be eating, what you’re going to be drinking.
“On a matchday, I have to monitor myself a lot. I check my blood sugar levels in the lead-up to the game, then before the warm-up, then when I come back in from the warm-up, then at half-time and obviously at full-time.
“Each time I take a little pin-prick of my blood and put that into a little device which tells me where I am with my levels. Then I know whether I need to give myself a little more insulin or a little bit less through the pump to sort me out.
“I’ve never had a low while I’ve been on the pitch but I always have Lucozade on the side of the pitch just in case I have to run over and drink some.
“Gary Mabbutt is the only diabetes sufferer I heard about in football when I was growing up. I’ve never spoken to him but it helped me massively to know that someone who had diabetes had played football professionally.
”There’s a lot of support out there for people who are diabetic. The hospitals try and do their best and Diabetes UK runs a lot of campaigns, but it’s hard trying to get the word out so anything I can possibly do by seeing the kids is good.”
Coker’s manager at Southend, Phil Brown, is full of admiration for the down-to-earth manner in which his player copes with a potentially dangerous condition.
Brown said: “Ben is open with his diabetes. He uses the gauges for his blood openly in the changing room and everybody asks him about it. He doesn’t hide it. It’s not an ailment to him, it’s just something that he has to do deal with.
“Fifteen is quite an age to find out that you have diabetes. It’s a shock to the system. When I see Ben dealing with his ailment and getting on with his life in the face of adversity like he does, he is an inspiration for kids at school to be able to look up to. It hasn’t affected him in the slightest. In fact, he uses it to his gain, to say: ‘This is not going to get in my way.’
“He is an example of being able to push back barriers and boundaries to be able to get on with your career and your life.
“As far as I’m concerned, there are a lot of unsung heroes at this level of the game, great characters and great ambassadors. This award is recognition for Southend, but more importantly for Ben, because of how honest and open he is about his diabetes and how he goes out of his way to help others. That’s special.”