Relive the Roses
Dec. 19, 2007
By Jason Krump
As a linebacker for the Washington State Cougars and a special teams performer for the New Orleans Saints, Steve Gleason has been involved in numerous plays where he contributed his share of hard hits.
For all of his memorable blows, Gleason's most noteworthy play wasn't a hit, but a block, which provided the city of New Orleans an enormous assist to an ongoing recovery from the hardest hit imaginable.
The story is well-documented. On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the southern coast of the United States with New Orleans right in its crosshairs.
That day served as the beginning of what continues to be a tumultuous time for the city. As Katrina approached, the Louisiana Superdome became a shelter for those to ride out the storm. After the storm, it became a symbol of the city's plight.
But nearly 13 months to the day after Katrina, on Sept. 25, 2006, the Superdome reopened and welcomed back its primary tenant, the Saints, a team that was displaced to San Antonio by the effects of Katrina during the 2005 season.
Over a year of anticipation created an atmosphere in the building equaling that of a Super Bowl and, with the game just minutes old, that atmosphere was ignited by a play that will live on forever in New Orleans history.
"I still walk around New Orleans and people tell me it was the greatest play in the history of the Saints," Gleason said.
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 had 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, and I know I probably never will," Gleason said. "Everyone had a strong emotional tie to the game and everyone was cheering for the Saints."
The cheers weren't just confined to the Superdome.
Thousands of miles away, in a classroom on the Washington State campus, Steve Gleason's mother was listening to the broadcast of the game.
A WSU College of Education doctoral student and graduate assistant, Gail Gleason was giving her undivided attention to her laptop computer . . . not for taking notes but for following the game.
When the blocked punt happened, Gleason could not contain her excitement, and in the process blew her cover.
"I had to explain to everybody that I really wasn't taking notes," she said with a laugh.
As important as the play was in giving the Saints an early lead, its significance was felt well beyond the boundaries of the football field.
"There was so much frustration, hardship, anger, sorrow, and so many emotions that had been tied up in that whole hurricane experience; there were so many anticipating being in the dome that night," Steve Gleason said. "For me to make that play in the beginning of the game was just a way for everyone to let out of all those emotions."
The blocked punt made Gleason a household name throughout the nation; however, for Cougar fans, Gleason had already been hailed as a fiery, intense, hard-hitting player throughout his career as linebacker for Washington State from 1995-99.
"Steve wanted to be a Cougar," Mike Price said. "He played hard and was invaluable to team."
"Gleason was a great leader," Mike Walker said. "When he spoke, they listened. That's how tough he was."
That toughness was epitomized in one play during the 1997 Apple Cup.
Nearing the midpoint of the second quarter, the Huskies faced a third-and-eight, and Brock Huard lobbed a screen pass to Cam Cleeland, who started running up the field for what would be a 20-yard gain.
Near the end of his run, 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 said of his hit. "If there is anytime for recklessness it was a game like that. I probably took the worse of it but I didn't miss any plays. I still might be feeling that one.
"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," continued Gleason, who earned All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention while leading the Cougars with 100 tackles at linebacker during the 1997 season, including nine in the 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."
After completing his playing career at WSU, Gleason signed with the Saints in 2000 and has been with the NFL team ever since. Classified as a safety on the Saints roster, Gleason's greatest impact, as demonstrated by his blocked punt against Atlanta, has been on the special teams unit.
With the help of his mother, Gleason's impact to assist New Orleans' recovery was not limited to what happened on the playing field.
The devastation Katrina inflicted affected every aspect of the city, including its public school system. To assist with the tens of thousands of school children displaced by the storm, the Gleasons, through Steve's "One Sweet World Foundation," partnered with WSU to create "Backpacks for Hope," an effort that gathered and delivered backpacks with school supplies to the children.
Donors were requested to identify the grade level of student they wished to help, buy a grade-level appropriate backpack, and write the grade on a piece of tape affixed to the outside of the backpack. In the pack they were asked to place school supplies, including a journal or notebook for the child to write down his or her personal story of how the hurricane has affected his or her life.
"At the Seattle game we had people literally drive up with trucks and bring in a truckload of backpacks at the Event Center and north parking lot," Gail Gleason said. "A lot were teachers who could relate to the idea, and got their kids involved to make them aware of what other kids were going through.
"None of them came and just dropped them off, they all told the story," she continued. "It was amazing, absolutely phenomenal."
So phenomenal that what was expected to garner 1,000 packs turned into an effort that brought in thousands.
"I'm really grateful the Washington State community has supported me and New Orleans in our rebuilding efforts," said Steve Gleason, whose "One Sweet World Foundation" is a charitable foundation that focuses on environmental sustainability and literacy program development. "We were hoping for about 1,000 backpacks and we had about 10,000."
Every pack was distributed, some in San Antonio, where many of the children were forced to relocate, and the others in the hardest hits regions of Louisiana and Mississippi.
But for Gail, there is much more to be done in a recovery that continues. While the students were in need of supplies, an overlooked aspect of the school system's troubles were the teachers and their needs.
"When I ask the teachers how they are doing they can't even answer," she said. "They all lost everything, including all teaching supplies.
"I don't know how they are going to survive, I really don't," she continued, "because they never stopped to take care of themselves. Teacher's want someone to tell their story."
And that is what the topic of her dissertation -- telling the stories of the teachers of New Orleans; one of the countless number of stories Katrina created in her aftermath.
When the story of New Orleans recovery is told, undoubtedly, the blocked punt by Steve Gleason will be a primary chapter in it.
"For me to be able to make that play I am just grateful," Gleason said, "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."
Relive the Roses