A Talk About Life
Jan. 11, 2012
Editors Note: The following story is featured in the 2012 Winter edition of Cougars Quarterly. The publication is sent to Cougar Athletic Fund members and season ticket holders. To learn more about the Cougar Athletic Fund click HERE or call 1-877-IMA-COUG. For WSU Athletics ticket information click HERE
For more information on Team Gleason click HERE.
By Jason Krump
On a brisk November Saturday morning, the Washington State University football team filed into the Indoor Practice Facility.
Kickoff for the Cougars' Pac-12 game against Arizona State was still hours away. Prohibitive underdogs to the Sun Devils, a team that had been nationally-ranked the majority of the season, this time would be dedicated to making final preparations for that night's game.
As the players entered the facility they noticed an individual waiting for them. They gathered around, and for the next 15 minutes, listened to his message.
"It was amazing," linebacker Mike Ledgerwood remembers. "Everyone afterward had a twinkle in their eyes. That's all we could talk about."
"His message is one of the most powerful and moving things I've ever been a part of," wide receiver Jared Karstetter says. "You can tell it was from the bottom of the heart."
"It was a heartfelt speech," receiver Marquess Wilson recalls. "It really touched us all."
"When he talked to the team I think I was one of the first ones to start shedding tears," linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis confesses. "What he was saying really hit home."
The person delivering the message was Steve Gleason, who 10 months earlier, was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotophic lateral sclerosis), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Playing linebacker for WSU from 1995-99, Gleason was listed as 5-foot-11, 215 pounds on the roster.
Though seemingly undersized, Gleason's play belied his stature.
Evidence of this is epitomized in one play during the 1997 Apple Cup.
A Rose Bowl berth, the first in 67 years, was on the line for the Cougars. Nearing the midpoint of the second quarter of the critical game, the Huskies faced a third-and-eight, and quarterback Brock Huard lobbed a screen pass to Cam Cleeland.
Gleason, who was outweighed by Cleeland by over 60 pounds, came flying in and nailed the Husky tight end right between the "8" and "5" on his uniform.
Cleeland managed to stagger a few more yards before going down and, though Gleason was woozy from the hit, he was able to jog off the field, Cleeland, however, remained on the turf.
"It was pretty reckless on my part," Gleason recalls. "If there is any time for recklessness it was a game like that. I probably took the worse of it but I didn't miss any plays.
"What I mostly remember coming off the sidelines was thinking I wasn't going to be able to go another play and I was going to have to take a rest," adds Gleason, who earned All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention while leading the Cougars with 100 tackles during the 1997 season, including nine in the 1998 Rose Bowl. "But someone came up to me and said he (Cleeland) is not getting up. As soon as I heard that I was like, `Yeah I'm okay,' so I just walked back on the field."
The Blocked Punt
After WSU, Gleason signed with the NFL's New Orleans Saints in 2000. Classified as a safety on the Saints roster, Gleason's greatest impact was on the special teams unit.
This was no more in evidence than on Sept. 25, 2006.
That night marked the reopening of the Superdome nearly 13 months to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.
Over a year of anticipation created an atmosphere equaling that of a Super Bowl and, with the game just minutes old, that atmosphere was ignited by a play that will live forever in New Orleans history.
After a three-and-out on their opening possession, the Falcons were forced to punt, but punter Michael Koenen's effort met the outstretched arms of Gleason, who sprinted untouched through the heart of the Falcons' line.
The ball bounced into the end zone where the Saints' Curtis Deloatch fell on it for a touchdown that gave New Orleans a 7-0 lead, but, more importantly, gave the city a chance to cheer again.
"I know it is a cliché but I never heard a stadium that loud, ever," Gleason recalled.
Ever since, Gleason is a hero to the city.
"For me to be able to make that play I am just grateful," Gleason says, "because we all grow up wanting to do something significant that means more than just a great play. That's the cool thing about that play. It meant a lot more than just a blocked punt. It meant that this city has returned. It is still here and the heartbeat is still strong."
Much had happened to the Saints' franchise in the years since Gleason's blocked punt, most notably a World Championship after defeating the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010.
Much happened for Gleason, too. He retired after the 2007 season, married, and for six months, he and his bride Michel traveled the world visiting Greece, Turkey, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. The couple settled in New Orleans and Gleason was working toward his MBA from Tulane University while working for the Baton Rouge-based Shaw Group as a consultant for Clean Energy Initiatives.
It was in the summer of 2010 that Gleason began experiencing symptoms of ALS, a progressive disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. In January he received the diagnosis.
Five years to the day of Gleason's historic play, on Sept. 25, 2011, the Saints hosted the Houston Texans in the Superdome. It was the day he decided to go public with his affliction.
Gleason served as honorary captain and took part in the coin toss and led the crowd in the pregame "Who Dat" chant, once again hearing the cheers from a sellout Saints crowd.
Also on that day, the "Team Gleason" movement began.
"Ultimately the mission is to help raise awareness towards ALS and help other people who have been diagnosed with ALS and ultimately find a cure," Gleason says of Team Gleason.
Gleason has a website, Facebook, Twitter pages, and started the Gleason Initiative Foundation, to provide support to individuals with muscular diseases and to raise the awareness level of ALS, a level that Gleason says is "astonishing low."
Just over a month after he served as honorary caption for the Saints, Gleason returned to his alma mater to serve as honorary captain for the Cougars' Dad's Weekend game against Arizona State.
He was presented the honor of raising the Cougar flag and at the end of the first quarter the Martin Stadium crowd held up cards displaying 34, Gleason's number during his playing days at WSU.
The coaches also wore hats with the words Team Gleason inscribed and Team Gleason T-shirts were sold on campus and online in the week leading up to the game.
Nearly 3,000 shirts were sold with proceeds directed toward the foundation.
"I've always lived with some purpose," Gleason says. "There has been intent behind my choices and the way I live my life and that certainly is not going to change. I think this is a great tool for me to continue to do that and even on a larger scale. This is the opportunity to inspire people to live with purpose."
Gleason took advantage of the opportunity during his talk to the team.
"We talked briefly about what I think is important about life," Gleason says. "We talked a lot about how you treat other people, obviously winning or losing is important in life, but most important are the relationships that you form and how you grow as a person."
"Then I said I came up here because I want to support you guys and I believe in you guys."
The message resonates.
"He brought up a good point in all of his years playing football he asked if anybody was ever scared before games," Hoffman-Ellis recalls. "He said, 'I was, but you know what? I still went out there.' It really rings true the saying without fear there is no courage.
"Just to see him up there, despite his condition, having a really positive outlook and speaking such moving words, it definitely had an emotional impact on myself and the rest of the team," Hoffman-Ellis adds.
That night, with Gleason looking on, the inspired Cougars defeated Arizona State, 37-27.
"Take in every second of life and make it the fullest that you can," Ledgerwood recalls Gleason saying.
Throughout his life, Gleason has sought to challenge himself, whether it was on or off the field.
His hobbies include surfing, fishing, writing, snowboarding, and playing guitar. While with the Saints, he spent every off-season traveling. His journeys included destinations as the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Easter Island.
In 2003, he formed the One Sweet World Foundation, a charitable foundation that focuses on literacy and environmentalism. After Hurricane Katrina, the foundation launched "Backpacks for Hope", an initiative to provide relief to young hurricane victims in the form of backpacks and school supplies.
He regularly donated his hair to "Locks for Love," which provides hair for wigs for children with cancer.
Last summer, Steve and Michel took their camper van, "The Ironhorse" (named after Gehrig) on a 14,000 mile road trip from New Orleans to Alaska and back. During their travels they visited is the Pacific Coast Highway, Crater Lake, Banff National Park, Denali National Park, Mount McKinley, The Copper River, The Kenai peninsula, Katmai National Forest, Alaska's Inside Passage and friends and family. The trip is documented on a website the couple created named The Shunpike Experiment.
Gleason earned his MBA from Tulane and in October of 2011, the couple gave birth to their son Rivers.
As he faces his greatest challenge, his message to the Cougar football team on that November morning can serve as a lesson for all.
"A lot of life is about pushing yourself to really explore who you are. Until you push yourself and until you find yourself in challenging circumstances I think a lot of people don't know who they are.
"I guess then football is a microcosm of life. You find yourself facing challenges all the time. To me the challenges are what we embrace. It helps me continue to explore who I am. Along the way hopefully I have inspired people to do the same."
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