Former Saints safety Steve Gleason was always a fan favorite in New Orleans. An undersized backup safety, he excelled on special teams, where heart and determination go a long way. He will always be remembered for blocking a punt against the Falcons in what became the signature play of the first game the Saints played in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.
Even before that signature play, his personal qualities had endeared him to the fans in New Orleans. He writes poetry and practices yoga. He studies Eastern philosophy. He let his hair grow out and donated it to the “Locks of Love” charity which provides wigs for children who lose their hair during chemotherapy.
Gleason recently announced that he was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease causes a gradually worsening paralysis, and people diagnosed with ALS typically live 3 to 5 years, although some have lived longer. The man who gave his name to the disease, Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Horse” who set the record of playing in 2130 consecutive games with the NY Yankees, retired because of ALS at age 36 and died at 37.
It is a tough sentence for anyone to take, but Gleason is facing the challenge with the kind of inspirational courage that has guided him his whole career. Gleason is forming a charitable foundation called Team Gleason, whose mission is to improve the lives of people who have ALS.
“In a way, I see this as an opportunity to continue to be an inspiration, maybe even more so than I ever have been,” Gleason told reporters in New Orleans.
“You have to continue to do things you love. . . . You have to engage in passionate, remarkable human relationships.”
Gleason received a Super Bowl ring this past week from Saints head coach Sean Payton in a ceremony attended by many of Gleason’s former teammates, including Drew Brees and Scott Fujita. In addition to the ring, Gleason also received a key to the city from Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
“This isn’t about Steve having ALS,” Fujita told the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune. “This is about Steve and his contribution to the team and the championship. He deserved it.”
Gleason spoke to those in attendance at the ceremony, and showed that the courage he was famous for on the football field has grown to take on the tremendous challenge in front of him.
“At the beginning of the game, I never knew if we were going to win or lose, but I was always certain that I was going to walk out of there with my head held high because I got ready, I had the right people around me and I was going to give it everything I had.”
“It’s the same now. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got. And I have a calming sense of certainty that we’re going to win this thing.”
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