The Times-Picayune is marking the tricentennial of New Orleans with its ongoing 300 for 300 project, running through 2018 and highlighting 300 people who have made New Orleans New Orleans, featuring original artwork commissioned by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune with Where Y’Art gallery. Today: New Orleans Saints hero Steve Gleason.
The icon: Steve Gleason.
The legacy: It took mere seconds for scrappy New Orleans Saints special teams stalwart Steve Gleason to make the greatest play in team history. The punt block heard ’round the world not only punctuate the team’s emotional 2006 return to the Superdome following its season-long Katrina exile, but it announced to the world that New Orleans was back. His rise from hero to beloved New Orleans icon wouldn’t truly be cemented, however, until five years after his NFL retirement, and after his diagnosis with the degenerative nerve disorder ALS.
Rather than retreating in self-pity, however, Gleason — behind his “No White Flags” rallying cry — has emerged as a tireless ALS activist, a spirited symbol of perseverance in the face of adversity, and as an inspiration to countless people in his adopted hometown and beyond.
The quote: “I’m pretty optimistic about the future. There’s a lot of life to be lived out there. I think my future is bigger than my past.” — Steve Gleason, on his retirement from the Saints, 18 months after the punt block that has defined his playing career
Explore more of Randall’s work online at WhereYart.net and in person at the Where Y’Art gallery, 1901 Royal St.
Stephen Michael Gleason was born March 19, 1977.
He was raised in Spoke, Washington, where he played both defense (linebacker) and offense (fullback) at Gonzaga Prep. He would receive a scholarship to play football at Washington State, where he played fullback.
Football wasn’t his only sport. He also played baseball both at Gonzaga Prep and at Washington State, where he was a four-year starter.
He went undrafted in the 2000 NFL Draft. The Indianapolis Colts signed him as a free agent but cut him during the preseason, at which point the Saints picked him up.
In New Orleans, he played briefly as a linebacker before being switched to strong safety, although his contributions came mostly on special teams, eventually being voted a team captain.
He was known to march to the beat of his own drummer, becoming what Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan would call, “the ultimate counterculture hero in a counterculture town.” He wrote poetry. He played the guitar. He practiced yoga. He started a recycling program at Saints headquarters. In the off-season, he indulged in various Third World adventures.
“Athletically, it was the coolest thing I’ve ever done, no doubt,” Gleason said the night of his now-iconic punt block. “I’m the little kid that dreams of playing in the NFL and doing something great, and tonight I did it. I’m never going to be a Hall of Fame defensive back. That’s probably going to be as good as it gets for me.”
He retired from football in 2008, so he wasn’t a member of the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl team, although the team awarded him a championship ring anyway as a key member of the Saints community.
He would become an unwilling part of the Saints’ bounty scandal when a leaked audio recording — made by a filmmaker Gleason hired to help him document his post-diagnosis life for his son — captured defensive coordinator Gregg Williams on tape offering his players money for injuring opposing players.
He married New Orleans’ Michel Rae Varisco in May 2008. After a six-month around-the-world honeymoon, they settled in New Orleans and he began working toward an executive MBA degree at Tulane University.
In 2010, he began noticing odd twitches in his chest muscles. When he later couldn’t complete three pull-ups, he went in to get checked out by a doctor. In January 2011, he was diagnosed with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
After two years of trying to become pregnant, Gleason and wife Michel decided shortly after his diagnosis to conceive a child through in-vitro fertilization. Their first child, a son named Rivers, was born later that year. A second child, a daughter, is due in October 2018.
In 2012, the Saints unveiled a statue of Gleason blocking the 2006 punt — based on a photo by Times-Picayune photographer Michael DeMocker — outside the Superdome.
“Gleason,” a documentary chronicling his post-diagnosis, debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and was short-listed for an Academy Award.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Gleason started his own charitable foundation, Team Gleason, dedicated to ALS advocacy. It has brought him into the orbits of such luminaries as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and President Barack Obama.
In June 2018, all 100 U.S. senators voted to award Gleason with the Congressional Gold Medal, putting him on track to win the award — the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress — assuming it gets the approval from the House of Representatives and the president.
“He is an example of what makes our country great,” U.S. Sen. John Cassidy said of Gleason. “He has given hope to many. He gives hope to all those who have ever received a devastating diagnosis, and his message is simple: Your life still has meaning. Your best years can still be ahead of you.”
Source: The Times-Picayune archives; staff research
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