NEW ORLEANS — On Monday night, September 25th, 2006 the Saints, New Orleans refugees for over a year were back for their first game in the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina. The city was still struggling with self-doubt and still uncertain about the future. Number 37 Steve Gleason, bolted through, blocked the punt into the end zone — and New Orleans was never the same again.
Tony award winning actor, Fringe star, and Saints fan Michael Cerveris says it changed the city forever.
“It changed people`s way of thinking about themselves,” Cerveris said.
The most important play in franchise history is now immortalized in pictures across New Orleans, in paintings that capture the glory and permanently outside the Superdome with a statue called “The Rebirth.”
In that moment when Gleason raised his arms, he lifted an entire city. Now, the arms that brought rebirth to New Orleans rest motionless. The legs that launched him across the line languish. The voice that screamed in celebration is nearly silent.
Several years after retiring from the NFL Gleason received devastating news. He was diagnosed with ALS — Lou Gehrig`s disease, and he was going to die.
“It was a combination of all kinds of emotions: Frustration, and anger and denial,” Gleason said.
With ALS, the brain and spinal cord can no longer send messages to muscles. Piece by piece those with ALS lose the ability to move, to speak, to swallow and ultimately to breathe.
Yet the mind remains active.
There is no cure, no treatment and no real understanding of the cause of this disease.
“This is an incredibly difficult disease. Having to expose yourself and your inabilities to other people — not only the public, but also my wife and my close friends and my family is a very difficult thing,” Gleason said.
Gleason has taken this diagnosis to die, and turned it into a mandate to live. He’s gone skydiving, canoeing on the Lewis and Clark trail, camping and more — even though his physical abilities are slipping away.
“I can still breathe. I can still talk — although it can be difficult and difficult to understand,” Gleason said.
Difficult as he may be to understand, Gleason’s slow words bring with them great wisdom.
Saints punter Thomas Morstead has come to know Gleason well.
“It`s just a daily dose of inspiration,” Morstead said.
“Life is difficult. Not just for me or other ALS patients. Life is difficult for everyone. Finding ways to make life meaningful and purposeful and rewarding, doing the activities that you love and spending time with the people that you love — I think that`s the meaning of this human experience. I think about death all the time. I think that`s a good thing because we`re all going to die and the only thing we can control is how we are and what we`re doing in the meantime,” Gleason said.
With that spirit, Gleason and his wife Michel formed Team Gleason. They realized that while parts of him would erode away, his passion for living an epic life was untouchable.
“We thought, let`s actually do something that will impact the lives of ALS patients now,” Gleason’s wife said.
So began Team Gleason — No White Flags. The organization seeks out those with ALS who embody the same spirit as Gleason — to live an awesome life. They send them on extraordinary adventures.
The team sent Jim Eutizzi and his son, who live in Waukesha, on an awesome life adventure to their ancestral home in Italy, to fulfill a promise Jim had made to his father.
Eutizzi keeps a blog of his journey with ALS, and his outreach impressed Team Gleason.
“They`re really going to make their mark on this horrific disease and patients and families across America,” Eutizzi said.
Team Gleason even reached out to FOX6’s Brad Hicks’ family. Steve and Michel Gleason saw a video Hicks’ brother made.
In the video, Hicks’ brother talks about his love of baking bread: “I’ve got ALS, and I figured I’d have two options — live or wait to die. And I chose to bake bread.”
Hicks’ brother`s upbeat attitude about embracing every day, led to a life-changing surprise from Team Gleason.
Now, Hicks’ brother and his wife are preparing for an epic adventure through the Panama Canal.
“The adventure trips, as I`ve seen it at least, can be somewhat of an awakening for the patients who experience the adventure, and also anyone who witnesses those adventures,” Gleason said.
Gleason’s longtime friend, Pearl Jam lead guitarist Mike Mccready, says how Gleason has responded to his diagnosis is “something we could all learn from.”
“There`s nothing higher than that — when you have a human being that can do that and give back to levels that he does,” McCready said.
When Gleason blocked the punt on that September night in the Superdome, he changed people’s lives — and in that sense, nothing about him has changed at all.
Although he can no longer raise his arms, Gleason is still lifting an entire city.
CLICK HERE for additional information on the work of Team Gleason.