How Bengals’ Orlando Brown Jr. Turned 'Traumatic Experiences' Like Losing His Father Into 'Fuel' (Exclusive)

Brown lost his father, a former Baltimore Ravens player, to complications from diabetic ketoacidosis when he was just 15

<p>Courtesy of Cincinnati Bengals</p> Orlando Brown Jr., offensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals

Courtesy of Cincinnati Bengals

Orlando Brown Jr., offensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. is a hero on and off the football field.

Having lost his father, a former NFL player, to complications of diabetic ketoacidosis when he was just 15, and growing up caring for his younger brother who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when Brown was just nine, the Bengals player, now 27, tells PEOPLE how he turned his "traumatic experiences" into "fuel" to help others living with type 1 diabetes.

"I'm someone that's dealt with a lot of different traumatic experiences in my life and my career," says Brown, pointing to his parents' divorce, losing his grandmother to "type 1 complications and heart issues" when he was young and his grandfather's passing "shortly after" his father's death in 2011.

"I'm someone that's seen a lot, I've been through a lot, and I've learned to use that anger, pain and sadness for fuel with what I do in my everyday life," Brown says.

"I would say that everything that I've been through in life, anytime someone's told me I couldn't do something, it's my added fuel, adds to my motivation, and it's allowed me to be able to compartmentalize those emotions."

Brown recalls the complex lifestyle change for his family when his younger brother was diagnosed.

"I experienced it firsthand," he says, "seeing everything that my mom went through in terms of the struggles that she dealt with, having to wake up in the middle of the night to check his blood sugar, making sure he is not too low, making sure he is not going too high, going through the nutrition books to make sure we're doing the proper intake of carbs, because at the time he was on a needle."

<p>Courtesy of Brown Family</p> Orlando Brown Jr. and his father, Orlando Brown Sr., and brothers

Courtesy of Brown Family

Orlando Brown Jr. and his father, Orlando Brown Sr., and brothers

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The "maintenance" of treating diabetes "for a young child" put a lot of stress on his family, says Brown, who now advocates for type 1 research through the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).

"That was my main reason for getting involved with JDRF, is to bring peace to others," says Brown. "I don't have type 1, but for me, getting involved was to bring peace to those family members, those brothers, sisters, moms, dads, cousins, uncles, aunties, grandmothers, friends, that deal with it on the daily, because it is very stressful, and at times you feel somewhat hopeless and you don't know if there is light at the end of the tunnel," says Brown.

Working with JDRF allows Brown to "talk to those people firsthand" and comfort the families navigating their own journey with type 1.

"JDRF allowed me to share my story, and tell people to know that, hey, you aren't the only person that's had to deal with this. I've seen my mom do it. I've had to do it even with my friend Mark Andrews that plays in Baltimore, there's times I've had to be there for him when his sugar has gone low or been too high. My main reason is to be able to help other people understand that you're not alone in this."

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Brown dedicates his work with JDRF to his late father, his brother and fellow NFL players Mark Andrews and Noah Gray, who all have type 1 diabetes.

Looking back on his relationship with his father, whose career suffered a bizarre ending when a penalty flag thrown by a referee partially blinded him in 1999, Brown says he has "so much respect for the way he carried himself" on and off the field.

<p>Courtesy of Brown Family</p> Orlando Brown Jr. and his father, Orlando Brown Sr.

Courtesy of Brown Family

Orlando Brown Jr. and his father, Orlando Brown Sr.

"His story was so much more different than mine because he went through the extreme hardships of having to be an undrafted player coming into the NFL, and really, truly being a guy that has to work for everything."

Brown continues, "He's gotten the most gutter-like situation, from the bottom of the totem pole to the top, and it's very hard to do that in this sport and profession. I have so much respect for the way that he carried himself and the way that his career went."

Brown, who was drafted in the third round in 2018 by the Baltimore Ravens (where his father played for five seasons), won the 2023 Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs before signing with the Cincinnati Bengals in March 2023.

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And through his advocacy work, Brown hopes to see more affordable insulin options for people in need. "That is one of the biggest issues with diabetes, is it's somewhat expensive. It's overpriced."

"But the science in terms of what is available now for diabetics is light years ahead of what it was in the past," says Brown. "With the cell phones now, if my brother was diagnosed today, he could pretty much have a robotic pancreas, and these pumps that are offered through these different companies, and the blood sugar levels can be tested and looked at any time without having to continuously prick himself. The science has come so far, and so that's really, I think, what JDRF is continuing to push."

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