NFL fans know Steve Gleason as the Saints special teamer who provided one of the great moments in recent league history, blocking a punt to set up a touchdown early in the first game in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Today is the five-year anniversary of that great play, and Gleason (who retired after the 2007 season) is being brought back to the Superdome to serve as an honorary captain for today’s game. But we’re sorry to say that’s not the only reason we’re mentioning Gleason today.
Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune has written a moving profile in which Gleason reveals that he has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. At the age of 34, Gleason is beginning to lose his ability to walk, talk and swallow. Eventually, the disease will kill him.
And yet Gleason sounds surprisingly at peace with the terrible diagnosis, and he says he’s eager to take his story public to serve as an inspiration to others.
“I’ve thought, what does this mean, how does this help me fulfill my purpose in life? If we have a purpose in life beyond being a cog in the human machine, mine is to help inspire people and that’s pretty cool. I would like to motivate the world,” Gleason said.
One troubling aspect of Gleason’s diagnosis is the possibility that playing football could have contributed to it. Gleason says he has studied the research into whether brain injuries in football can lead to ALS.
“You have people in both camps,” Gleason said. “But it’s getting harder and harder to say that there are no repercussions from head trauma in the NFL or in football. You can’t say that anymore. . . . I have questioned sometimes, man, was this caused by the NFL?” Gleason said. “And the thing is, we just don’t know. Nobody knows.”
What we do know is that Gleason is handling his diagnosis with grace and dignity. Here’s hoping the loudest cheer at the Superdome today comes for the coin toss, when Gleason takes the field one more time.