Dellenger: Chavis turns focus from his own disease to lesser-known one

John Chavis has a disease.

LSU’s hard-nosed defensive coordinator won’t forget the day he walked into his doctor’s office and heard the grim message.

“This borderline diabetic thing you talk about is over,” the doctor told him. “You’re diabetic.”

That was two years ago, the moment Chavis began exercising regularly, the point in which he began fighting diabetes with both hands.

“Hopefully I’m well on the way to reversing it,” he said.

This column isn’t about John Chavis, though. Or, at least, he doesn’t want it to be.

Inside his office earlier this week, Chavis squirmed in his chair and dropped his head toward the carpet when discussing himself.

No, he said, this is not about me.

It’s about the golf tournament he runs, an event that benefits the victims of another disease: sickle cell anemia.

The John “Big Chief” Chavis Golf Tournament is set for May 19 at University Club. The four-man scramble, in its second year, already has more than 100 participants (25 teams).

Proceeds will provide medical vouchers, sickle cell testing, and education support to individuals with sickle cell disease.

The latter might be the most important. The Chief, as he’s known by most, said he wants to shine a light on a disease that doesn’t get enough attention.

“It’s one that not everybody thinks of,” Chavis said. “We want to do something for people being affected by a disease — and I’m a diabetic — that doesn’t get the attention that diabetics get.”

Chavis has seen sickle cell rear its ugly head in his own 35-year coaching career.

But first, what is sickle cell anemia?

The disease results in blocked blood flow and a lack of oxygen to muscles and tissue, causing pain, organ damage and a high risk of infection.

At the root of the disorder are misshaped red blood cells. Imagine if the sport of basketball used a football and football used a basketball.

Things just wouldn’t work right.

Normal red blood cells swim through our blood vessels smoothly in a rounded shape. Sickle cell blood cells resemble a boomerang, and they don’t last as long as normal red blood cells. The body falls behind in production, and oxygen isn’t delivered at the necessary rate.

While there’s no cure — yet — treatment can improve the condition and lower the risk of complications.

Education about the disease is essential. Chavis knows that from his own battle with diabetes, a disease in which a person has high blood sugar.

There was a time when he was ignorant of diabetes.

“Listen, diet? Are you kidding me? I don’t have any idea. I always thought potatoes were good for you,” Chavis said. “But for me, potatoes are the worst thing I can eat because it turns to sugar. Well, I should have known that, but I never took time to think about that. “Education is a big part of it. Same way dealing with sickle cell,” he continued. “Once you understand, you can live a healthier life. Once you understand the things you can do and things you can’t.”

Chavis dealt with at least one player during his 16-season tenure at Tennessee affected by sickle cell. The disease is passed down from parents and is much more common in people of African and Mediterranean descent.

“It opened my eyes when I found out that it’s a disease that if it’s untreated and not managed it can take your life,” Chavis said.

From 2004 to 2008, five NCAA football players’ deaths were associated with sickle cell, according to a study from the University of Washington.

Sickle cell hits close to home in Baton Rouge.

Former LSU defensive back Ryan Clark suffered from the sickle cell trait. He had to be rushed to the hospital while playing in a game for the Steelers at Denver in 2007. Clark had to have his spleen and gall bladder removed, ending his season.

For Chavis and his diabetes, things never got so bad. He hopes they never will.

But there was a time when he tempted fate. Diabetes runs in his family, and he was given orders to take a pill, eat healthy and exercise during his “borderline diabetes” stage a few years ago.

He did one of the three.

Two years ago, Chavis walked into that doctor’s office for a stern talk, something he usually doles out.

“I got lectured. She said, ‘Why do you pay me money to do these things if you’re not going to take care of yourself,’” Chavis said.

“It kind of hit me. I said, ‘Well, we’re going to do something about.’”

He’s doing something about sickle cell, too.

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @rossdellenger . For more coverage of LSU football, follow our Tiger Tracks blog.