Steve Gleason may be best known for providing one of the most electric plays in New Orleans Saints football history.
The former star on Saints’ special teams carved his niche into the team’s lore when he blocked a punt that was recovered for a touchdown against the loathed Atlanta Falcons on the night the New Orleans Superdome reopened 13th months after Hurricane Katrina tore a hole in the roof and left the Dome and much of the city in shambles.
Saints head coach Sean Payton said the crowd’s reaction was likely the loudest he had ever heard in any stadium. A statue of a diving Gleason immortalizes that play outside the stadium.
In his eight years with the Saints, Gleason’s contributions on special teams and as a back-up safety won the admiration of teammates, coaches and fans.
Now there’s greater reason to admire Gleason. He is providing us all a lesson in living.
Gleason is actually dying, a victim at age 36 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no cure for ALS, only a death sentence.
Twenty-one months ago, Gleason walked unsteadily as he leaned on quarterback Drew Brees to the Superdome’s 50-yard line to participate as an honorary captain in the pre-game coin toss.
Today, he is confined to a wheelchair, no longer able to speak or move and communicating through a special tracking device that allows his eye movements to type messages.
Earlier this week, three dunderheads who worked as shock jocks for an Atlanta radio station participated in an on-air skit that mocked Gleason. The outrage was fast and furious and the radio station fired the three culprits the next day.
What made this even more cruel is that the skit was not some off-the-cuff, spur-of-the-moment comment, but rather a segment that required some planning. In this Atlanta radio suite, common sense was Gone with the Wind.
One commentator noted that while there may be no limits on speech, it doesn’t guarantee that an employer has to put up with such crass behavior.
No one would blame Gleason, whose been dealt a bad hand, if he lashed back.
Instead, he gave us all a lesson in humility.
“Regarding the DJ skit in Atlanta (Monday). I would like to thank the public for their support,” he wrote. “‘Defend Team Gleason’ now has been officially redefined. Additionally, the DJs have provided genuine apology. Received and accepted. We have all made mistakes in this life. How we learn from our mistakes is the measure of who we are.
“I think everyone can learn from this event. It’s clear to me that, on a national & global scale, ALS is not understood, which is part of why it’s underfunded and largely ignored. In the past 36 hours lots of people have been talking. Let’s talk about this ...
“There are zero treatments for ALS. If you take any action as a result of this event, I prefer it to be action to end ALS. See what we are doing to change that www.teamgleason.org.”
Gleason’s response is reminiscent of another sports hero, who on July 4th, 1939, stood surrounded by teammates, opponents and dignitaries at home plate in Yankee Stadium, his shoulders slumped, his head bowed, his body already beginning to show the ravages of the disease that would bear his name. And yet, on that day, New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig would utter these immortal words: ‘‘Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.’’
Arguably, no other athlete in the 20th century displayed Gehrig’s grace.
A 21st-century athlete will be hard pressed to best Gleason’s example.
This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.