When he signed as an undrafted free agent with the New Orleans Saints in 2000, Steve Gleason was a long shot.
He was a good athlete at Washington State University, but undrafted players rarely make an NFL active roster.
However, no stranger to challenges, Gleason made the team and stuck around for eight years.
In 2006, he would make a memorable play that galvanized the ravaged city of New Orleans and turned Gleason into a cult hero.
Only a few years later, a terrible disease would erode his body, but not his spirit.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) March 19, 2021
To this day, Gleason continues to be a beacon to all those facing long odds.
This is the incredible true story of Steve Gleason.
Growing up in Washington
Stephen Michael Gleason was born on March 19, 1977 in Spokane, Washington.
He was active from the start and enjoyed being in the great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest.
When he entered Gonzaga Prep High School in 1991, Gleason was ready to take full advantage of high school life.
He did so and then some. While playing football and baseball for Gonzaga Prep, Gleason always went 100 miles an hour.
On the gridiron, he played both ways for the Bullpups as a linebacker and fullback.
For two consecutive years, Gleason was honored as the defensive MVP for the Greater Spokane League.
Gleason excelled on the diamond as well, breaking the GSL record for home runs during his senior year.
Gleason’s athletic honors and reputation at Gonzaga Prep brought interest from nearby colleges.
Washington State University, located 75 miles south in Pullman, Washington, offered him a football scholarship and Gleason happily accepted.
During his first two years with the Cougars, the program struggled, winning only eight games total.
Finally, WSU turned things around in 1997.
That year, quarterback Ryan Leaf became a household name while passing for 3,968 yards, 34 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.
Gleason was a starting linebacker for the Cougars and played like a man possessed.
WSU began the ‘97 season 7-0 before losing to Arizona State in their eighth game.
The Cougars then won their final three games including a thrilling 41-35 victory over their cross-state rival Washington in the annual Apple Cup.
— Retro Sports (@RetroSports411) November 25, 2016
Gleason and WSU took their 10-1 record to the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1998 to face the number one ranked Michigan Wolverines.
It was the first time the Cougars had played in the Rose Bowl since 1930 and it would be a memorable contest.
At halftime, the game was tied at 7. By the end of the third quarter, the Cougars trailed by one, 14-13.
With the Wolverines leading 21-16, and less than a minute remaining, Leaf quickly moved WSU downfield.
After a successful hook-and-lateral play brought WSU to the Michigan 26 yard line with two seconds left, Leaf couldn’t get the ball spiked in time to stop the clock.
The Cougars would lose the game and Leaf would declare for the NFL Draft a day later.
With Leaf gone to the NFL, WSU would only win six total games during Gleason’s final two years at the school.
Although he didn’t experience much winning during his WSU tenure, Gleason stood out as a player and leader.
Steve Gleason, Washington State Cougars linebacker. pic.twitter.com/gVNIBGOaIn
— 808 Sports Customz (@808Customz) September 21, 2016
He was a two-time team captain and received All-Pac 10 honors three times.
Gleason racked up the ninth most tackles in program history with 282.
Remarkably, in addition to playing on the football team, Gleason also played baseball for the Cougars.
He was a four-year starter as an outfielder and currently holds the school record for triples.
By the time his college career ended, Gleason was a four-time letter winner in football and baseball.
NFL Free Agent
Although he was a good linebacker at Washington State, Gleason was not selected in the 2000 NFL Draft.
Instead, he was signed by the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent. After the team’s preseason ended, Gleason was released.
He then spent the next two months in limbo, hoping for another opportunity to prove he was an NFL player.
In late October, the new XFL football league held its draft to prepare for their inaugural season in 2001.
With the 191st pick of the draft, the Birmingham Thunderbolts selected Gleason.
However, a month later, the New Orleans Saints called. They wanted Gleason to play special teams and serve as a backup linebacker.
Gleason jumped at the opportunity and was signed to the Saints practice squad in late November.
He would appear in three games during the remainder of the season and post three combined tackles.
For the next few years, Gleason continued to prove his worth on the Saints special teams unit.
He joined the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe in early 2001 before returning to the Saints late in the season.
After another three tackle season in 2001, Gleason appeared in 14 games in 2002 and had 16 combined tackles including 15 solo stops.
In 2003 and 2004, he would add 17 combined tackles and a fumble recovery over both seasons.
Gleason finally saw the field as a starter for one game in 2005. That year, he would total 14 combined tackles including 12 solo.
Hurricane Katrina Displaces the Saints
On August 23, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Southeastern part of the United States. It eventually made its way to Louisiana on August 29.
One of the hardest hit areas of the storm was New Orleans.
👇 On This Day 29 Aug
2005 🇺🇸 Hurricane Katrina
The Hurricane makes landfall causing $125 Billion dollars of damage between the Florida panhandle and, worst of all, New Orleans
More than 1800 lose their lives and many suburbs of New Orleans remain 'ghost' towns to this day pic.twitter.com/g4sS4lVG2Q
— TonyH1963 ⚽️🍻 🇬🇧🇺🇲🇮🇱 (@TonyH091963) August 29, 2021
The violent nature of the hurricane overwhelmed the levee system around the city and floodwaters proceeded to pour in.
Damage to New Orleans and the surrounding parishes was staggering and the number of fatalities was heartbreaking.
Although severely damaged as well, the Superdome, where the Saints played home games, was used as a shelter for those displaced by the storm.
By the time Katrina finally retreated from the region, New Orleans resembled a third-world city.
It is estimated that at least 80% of the area was water-logged for weeks. The monetary damage exceeded several billion dollars.
Families that had called the city home for generations were forced to leave and find new residence in other parts of the country.
Katrina’s aftermath also meant that the Saints would have to find a temporary place to play.
Hurricane Katrina Emergency Shelter 2005💧☔️
Allstate #SugarBowl 2015🏈
— Coach Rob Tamboia (@ChampionCoach) January 2, 2015
For the remainder of the 2005 season, the team would play their home games in San Antonio, Texas, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and even Giants Stadium for their first game.
The loss of normalcy led to a 3-13 record in ‘05 and would cost coach Jim Haslett his job after six seasons with the club.
The Block Heard ‘Round the French Quarter
As New Orleans recovered from Katrina’s devastation, the Superdome was rebuilt in just under a year.
The Saints made plans to unveil the reopening of the stadium on September 25, 2006.
That date just happened to be a Week 3 Monday Night Football game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Even better, both teams would enter the game with 2-0 records.
New Orleans would also see the home debut that night of new head coach Sean Payton and newly signed free-agent quarterback Drew Brees.
To celebrate the return of football to the Big Easy, the Saints threw a party.
ESPN to re-air iconic Monday Night Football game of Saints’ dominating 2006 victory over Falcons! ⚜️
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) April 2, 2020
Musical guests Green Day and U2 performed before the game and the crowd was in full roar.
Then, former president George H. Bush was part of the ceremonial coin toss.
“There was a moment during the national anthem, minutes before kickoff, I vividly remember looking across the field and seeing the Falcons, and looking up at the crowd in the Dome and thinking, ‘It is impossible for us to lose tonight,'” Gleason said in a 2020 interview.
Even Falcons head coach Jim Mora (whose father had coached the Saints from 1986-1996) knew his team was in trouble during the pregame festivities.
“When I was about ready to bring my team out onto the field, and we had to stay in the locker room a little bit longer because Green Day and U2 were singing, ‘The Saints Are Coming.’ And we could hear it clearly. We were like, ‘Oh, man … this isn’t good,'” Mora said.
Not long after kickoff, the home fans would become even more delirious.
On the third play of the game, Atlanta and their electric quarterback, Michael Vick, had the ball.
As Vick dropped back to pass on third and four, Saints linebacker Scott Fujita came rushing in on a blitz and sacked Vick, also forcing a fumble that bounced out of bounds.
That forced the Falcons to punt.
Gleason played on the punt return team and was tasked with trying to block the kick.
As fate would have it, after the snap, a gaping hole in the middle of the line opened up and Gleason snuck through.
Just as Falcons punter Michael Koenen kicked the ball, Gleason came streaking in and blocked the punt.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) September 25, 2021
The ball bounced a few yards and was picked up by New Orleans cornerback Curtis Deloatch, who ran the ball into the end zone for a touchdown.
Just like that, the Saints were on the scoreboard with 13:30 still remaining in the first quarter.
“That blocked punt, that week the plan was to attack that area because it was something that coaches saw on film that the snapper did. And Gleason, everybody knows Gleason, he doesn’t back down from a challenge. … I think everyone knew that the type of guy Gleason was, he was gonna get that thing done,” said then Saints guard Jahri Evans years later.
Koenen himself still marvels to this day how fast Gleason rushed the ball and made the block.
“We were a little backed up and trying to get the ball off, and Gleason came through so fast. I think my timing was good. I was under two seconds on the get-off and everything, and he just made a heck of a play,” Koenen said.
The Falcons kicked a field goal minutes later, but the rest of the game belonged to the Saints and the city of New Orleans.
When the final whistle sounded, the team walked off the field with a resounding 23-3 victory and a 3-0 record.
“The whole world was against us that night. And for some reason, at the end of the day, that seemed OK with me,” Mora said.
The Saints would end their remarkable year at 10-6 and advance to the NFC Championship game before succumbing to Chicago 39-14.
Gleason had 18 combined tackles that season with 17 solo stops.
Saints unveil “rebirth” statue outside Mercedes-Benz Superdome as a tribute to Dome’s reopening & Steve Gleason pic.twitter.com/JTDTsiaJ
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) July 27, 2012
In 2012, the Saints placed a statue of Gleason’s famous block outside the Superdome with the title “Rebirth.”
Retirement and ALS Diagnosis
In the offseason before 2007, Gleason had microfracture surgery on his right knee which led him to miss the entire year.
Then, in May of 2008, he decided to retire from football.
“The time’s right. I’m getting married. I can walk away with my health,” said Gleason at the time. “I want to be active and adventurous when I’m 80 years old. If football was all I had in my life, I probably could play three or four more years. Who knows?”
Only three years later, his health would be a significant matter of concern.
In 2011, Gleason made a public announcement that he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The disease is debilitating, causing muscle atrophy and motor neuron loss. Most ALS patients are only given a year or two to live.
The timing of the diagnosis was even more difficult. Six weeks after his announcement, Gleason and his wife, Michel Rae Varisco, found out they were pregnant.
When Steve Gleason was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, he set out to make video journals for his son in case he wasn’t around.
His son, Rivers, tells his dad how this has inspired him to be resilient. pic.twitter.com/LG1NTGbrZj
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 20, 2021
At that point, the Gleason’s knew they were going to devote their lives to fight ALS.
Gleason Becomes a Beacon of Courage
Since his diagnosis, there have been many theories as to what caused Gleason’s ALS.
One idea has been the connection between football and the disease.
Studies have been conducted that conclude that football can play a role in ALS.
In fact, one study completed in 2012 found that professional football players are four times more likely to die of ALS than the general population.
Furthermore, the frequent blows to the head that football players sustain during a season of football can only compound the risks of neurological disorders such as ALS.
Former NFL fullback Kevin Turner, who died from complications of ALS in 2016, believed that football was the culprit.
“If they would have come to me and said, ‘I’ve seen the future. This is what happens,’ of course, I would stop playing immediately,” Turner said in 2011.
However, the link between football and ALS is still inconclusive and studies are ongoing.
In the meantime, the Gleason’s have fought the good fight for the past decade.
Although Gleason is now confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, he communicates through a system that allows him to use his eyes to look at letters on a screen.
Then, an automated voice speaks what Gleason has looked at through high-tech visual software.
Steve Gleason continues to be an inspiration every day. pic.twitter.com/2UTDUNYjk7
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) October 27, 2019
He has worked with Microsoft to make similar technology available to others who are fully paralyzed.
Additionally, the Gleason’s have embarked on a crusade to raise awareness about ALS.
A documentary about his battle with the disease, Gleason, was released in 2016 to national acclaim.
The Gleason’s have also founded “Team Gleason,” a non-profit company whose mission is, “to improve life for people living with ALS by delivering innovative technology and equipment, as well as providing and empowering an improved life experience.”
In one of the first meetings for the new company, Gleason boldly declared, “There will be no white flags,” in the corporation’s battle with ALS.
Recently, the Steve Gleason Institute for Neuroscience was opened in Gleason’s hometown of Spokane, Washington.
The Institute has partnered with Washington State University to help those suffering from ALS and its effects.
Despite the many challenges, Gleason continues to embrace life each day.
Not only does he have a son, Rivers, the Gleason’s welcomed their daughter, Gray, in 2018.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) March 19, 2021
In 2020, Gleason was recognized by Congress with the Congressional Gold Medal for his ALS work. He is the first NFL player to receive the award.
“We have come to honor a true American hero … who has transformed the lives of so many people living with ALS,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “You bring pride to our nation.”