Steve Gleason Is On A Mission: How The Former NFL Player Is Fighting ALS
Former New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason was once a gifted two-sport athlete. Then, the unthinkable happened. Gleason received the shock of his life when an unexpected downturn in health proved to be much worse than anyone expected. Doctors diagnosed Gleason with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Rather than let the disease consume him, the retired NFL player continues to make an impact – read on to discover his inspiring stoy.
1. Washington Roots
Steve Gleason, whose full name is Stephen Michael Gleason, was born on March 19, 1977 in Spokane, WA. Gleason spent his childhood here in Lilac City. The small city is as far inland as it gets in Washington, bordering northern Idaho opposite end of Seattle.
Though Spokane is only roughly one third the size of Seattle, it’s the second largest city in Washington state. This offered Gleason a fantastic opportunity to compete against some of the state’s top talents in multiple sports growing up.
2. High School Football Star
Once Gleason reached high school, it didn’t take long for the young sports star to shine. The budding athlete attended Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane. On the football team, Gleason excelled in his roles as both a linebacker on defense and fullback on offense.
Gleason’s efforts paid off at an early age. His impact in the secondary as a linebacker earned him back to back Most Valuable Player (defense) selections as a junior and senior. The star of the Greater Spokane League attracted the attention of some of the top schools in the Pacific Northwest.
3. Two-Sport Talent
What was arguably most remarkable about Gleason’s standout performances on the football field was that he excelled in another sport, too. He was also a star on the baseball team. Come springtime, Gleason swapped helmets and transferred big hits to other big hits.
To cap off a second straight MVP season in fall, Gleason cemented himself in even more G-Prep sports history. He actually broke the school’s home run record. With such well-rounded abilities, it’s no wonder he was such a hot commodity.
4. Staying In-State
Gleason decided to continue to pursue his football career in his home state. After graduating from high school, he chose to attend Washington State University. This offered the Spokane standout athlete the opportunity to stay close to home; the Pullman, WA school is less than a 90-minute trip from his hometown.
At WSU, it did not take Gleason long to make a major impact on special teams and at linebacker on the secondary. One year removed from a 3-8 record, he helped bring the WSU Cougars up to a 5-6 record.
5. WSU Takes National Stage
A 5-6 record left plenty of room to improve, which is exactly what Gleason and his team did. The Cougars pulled off an incredible 10-2 season, taking them from a losing record to the coveted Rose Bowl. There, they would face the No. 1 ranked Michigan Wolverines.
Although Gleason’s team ultimately fell short, losing 16-21, competing on the NCAA’s biggest stage against the Tom Brady-led Wolverines proved how their hard work had paid off. It was also a sign of many good things to come.
6. Lasting Impact
While Gleason played an important role in helping the Cougs reach national prominence on the gridiron, that wasn’t his only contribution to WSU athletics. In the spring season, he kept busy dominating the baseball diamond. Gleason started all four years and still holds the school record for triples today.
A two-sport athlete throughout high school, Gleason grew into a steadfast leader during college. The 5’11” student-athlete was the living embodiment of hard work on and off the field. He clearly made a lasting impact throughout Eastern Washington.
7. Still Not Enough
Despite the numerous accolades Gleason earned as a high school and college athlete, after graduating from Washington State in 2000, he went undrafted in NFL draft. No matter how much he had proven over the last eight years, it seemed his underwhelming size was too much to overlook compared to the average NFL linebacker frame. But the Coug’s captain wasn’t about to give up.
The first thing in order was a position change. Defeating as this reality may seem to most, Gleason’s determination proved relentless.
Gleason eventually got a call from the Indianapolis Colts, who signed him to their practice squad as a safety. Indy eventually cut Gleason after the preseason. Just like that, the former WSU star athlete’s journey turned down an uncertain path.
As it turned out, though, these unfortunate circumstances proved to be one of the best things that could have happened.
8. A Second Chance
When one door closes, another opens.
After the Colts cut Gleason, the New Orleans Saints reached out to him. In November, the Saints signed Gleason to their practice squad. He worked his way up and played his way off the practice squad and onto the team’s roster.
Gleason’s unyielding work ethic made him a perfect fit on special teams, where he continued to stand out. Then, in Week 13, the rookie saw his first in-game action. Not only did he play three straight regular season games, he even saw action in NOLA’s Wild Card win.
9. Workhorse In New Orleans
Although No. 37 only served as a reserve as a safety for New Orleans’ secondary, he continued to play a key role on special teams. Gleason went from fighting for a roster spot and playing three regular season games in ’00 to seven games in ’01 to 14 the following season.
Gleason became NOLA’s posterchild for the gritty effort required to excel on special teams. By 2004, the man who had gone undrafted out of college was now the captain of special teams.
And that wasn’t the only special thing about playing in The Big Easy.
10. Finding New Love
In May 2004, the Saints’ top special teamer met a New Orleans native named Michel Varisco. She would turn out to top Gleason’s list of all things special.
Varisco, a free-spirited artist, describes her first impression of Gleason humorously.
Varisco says she thought Gleason “was going to be a complete cheeseball.” Whether or not that first impression turned out to be correct, the two quickly connected and fell deeply in love.
11. Katrina’s Devastation
Everything changed for Gleason, the New Orleans Saints, and all of Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. The Category 5 hurricane struck just weeks before the start of the 2005 NFL season. The storm displaced the team and residents throughout the entire city.
The Superdome was converted into a makeshift shelter of sorts, as what turned out to be one of the costliest and deadliest hurricanes in United States history tore through the city. Gleason and the Saints were forced to travel the road and play the entire season on the road.
12. Saints Return To The Superdome
The New Orleans Saints finally returned to the Superdome in Week 3 of the 2006 season. The team was riding high on a two-win streak.
It doesn’t take much for Who Dat Nation to get riled up. So after such a painful year in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints’ long-awaited home opener against rival Atlanta Falcons was too perfect.
The game itself accomplished so much. Simply by showing up, the New Orleans team was able to return some feeling of normalcy to the city. In such a momentous game, Gleason sent elated fans over the top. With one play, Steve Gleason transformed himself into a cult hero.
13. The Block
The Falcons got the ball to start the game, but were forced to punt after a quick three and out.
With Atlanta backed up on its own 29-yard line, punter Michael Koenen attempted to clear the ball, but Gleason came in full throttle to make sure that didn’t happen.
Gleason dove forward and blocked the punt, which a teammate scooped up and returned to their end zone. It was the Saints’ first touchdown back in the Dome.
The crowd erupted, instantly cementing the play in the history of football, sports, and New Orleans.
While the Saints went on to crush the Falcons 23-3, the image of Gleason’s outstretched arms captured so much more. The iconic moment told the world: NOLA’s back.
14. Saints’ Newfound Success
The New Orleans team went on to make 2006 the most successful season in franchise history up to that point. After tying their best regular season record (10-6), the Saints reached the NFC Championship. This surpassed their previous accomplishment of reaching the divisional round (2000).
Years of hard work on and off the field finally paid off for Gleason. The Washington native turned into a Louisiana cult hero. Gleason’s unbridled determination proves that hard work trumps all. His signature play is permanently stamped in NFL history as part of that Saints hallmark season.
15. End Of An Era
Unbeknownst to Gleason, the 2006 season marked the final high point of his football career. A knee injury forced the Saints’ star special teamer to undergo arthroscopic surgery, effectively placing him on the injured reserve.
After finally enjoying a breakout season, the 30-year-old had also unknowingly played out the last season of his professional career. In 2008, Gleason formally announced his retirement from the NFL. Unfortunately, the disappointing end to the season was only the start of his undesirable health news.
16. New Beginnings
After closing such a large chapter, Gleason turned his attention to finding success off the field. He now had room to focus on kicking off a new life outside of football. In 2008, Gleason married his love of the last four years, Michel Varisco.
The newlyweds spent their honeymoon traveling to all corners of the globe. For half a year, the carefree couple made stops everywhere from Greece to Australia.
After returning to the real world, Gleason earned his MBA at Tulane University. Just when it seemed that Steve Gleason had paved a clear path for his new journey, an unwelcome surprise hit him from the blindside.
After a few years of married life, Gleason and his wife prepared to take the next big step and grow their family. While trying to conceive, the couple took a fateful trip to the doctor. Gleason’s visit to the doctor resulted in news he and Michel never could’ve prepared for.
On January 5, 2011, Gleason was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The illness is also widely known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – the fatal disease responsible for progressive paralysis throughout the body.
Just like that, a checkup that began with intentions of bringing new life into the world turned into a revelation that Gleason’s life was slowly being taken away.
18. Taking The Good With The Bad
Only a few weeks after Gleason’s devastating diagnosis, the couple got another surprising bit of news. This time, the news was more than welcome, though. The couple learned that Michel was pregnant with their first child.
This bit of news was overwhelming, to say the least. Gleason and his wife had had less than a month to process the gravity of combatting ALS in its entirety. Now, they had to factor in raising a baby to the mix.
The news was a miracle in the wake of tragedy. It also brought the realization that facing this would require more fortitude than any challenge football had presented.
19. Now Recording…
First, the Gleasons took some time with close friends and family to process the chaotic events that kicked off 2011. Then, Steve Gleason prepared to lift the veil on his impending battle by publicly announcing his ALS diagnosis on September 25.
Having spent so much time on camera under his football pads and helmet, Gleason decided to turn the camera on himself once again. But this time, he hit the record button for a new reason.
With the ominous reality of how aggressively ALS can progress looming, the former NFL player decided to document as much as he could for his child – and the world – to see.
20. Living With Purpose
Not only were Steve and Michel about to welcome a new baby to the Gleason family, they essentially added another two people as well. Two cameramen who would document Gleason’s ALS journey were with the family constantly, filming and helping out 24/7.
The original idea was to record vlogs for the Gleason’s baby boy. But as soon as the seed was planted, the project was already blossoming into one with a far greater purpose. Steve Gleason saw an opportunity to do more than record his individual journey.
Gleason had found a new purpose – to spread awareness about the debilitating disease he faced.
21. A Special Delivery
On October 20, 2011, Michel Varisco-Gleason gave birth to a son, Rivers Gleason. After a whirlwind of dramatic, life-altering news to start the year, Steve Gleason and his wife finally held their baby boy. The special bundle of joy helped to remind them why the struggle ahead would be so worth it.
Due to the aggressive nature of ALS, Gleason was uncertain how long he would maintain his motor functions. He wasn’t even sure how long he would even be around to see his son Rivers grow up. This led to Gleason’s decision to begin making video journals – he wanted to tell his son as much as possible about his life, while he still could.
22. A Touching Tribute
In July 2012, the New Orleans Saints paid tribute to Gleason’s iconic blocked punt. The team unveiled a statue of the famous blocked punt in their home city.
The statue, located just outside the Superdome, is titled “Rebirth.” It represents the reopening of the Superdome after surviving Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.
Steve Gleason has selflessly dedicated his journey to others beyond himself, and he offered some stirring words on the statue’s magnitude.
“That statue is not about football, it’s a symbol of the commitment and perseverance that this community took on before that game,” Gleason said at the statue’s unveiling.
23. Conquering with pALS
Time and time again, Gleason exhibits his relentlessness.
In 2013, despite his body’s greatly decreased mobility and strength, Gleason had an idea for an epic trip. With family and close friends, including former teammate Scott Fujita, Gleason traveled to Machu Picchu.
“The Team Gleason Experiment” documented Gleason and his entourage’s trip, creating an amazing opportunity for the world to vicariously experience their motto, “Awesome ain’t easy.”
This adventure transformed into the idea to help other pALS (people with ALS) realize dreams of their own despite their limitations.
24. Expanding Inspiration
On November 26, 2013 the episode “Steve Gleason” debuted on Season 3 of A Football Life. This doc was the result of years of collaboration between Gleason’s family and documentarians. They worked to capture a personal story that speaks on behalf of all pALS.
The result was an intimate look inside Gleason’s life which finally captured his proverbial stance – No White Flags.
The documentary, largely focused on Team Gleason’s trip to Machu Picchu, is insightful. It illustrates that there are two sides to pushing through the roadblocks of ALS.
One side depicts a man unwilling to stop pursuing his passions and dreams despite facing the disease’s many challenges. The other side shines light on the overwhelming support – both physical and emotional – needed to accomplish those things.
25. Dark Times
Powerful as the NFL documentary was, Gleason’s health was still growing worse. The reality of ALS is grim, and those diagnosed with the terminal illness have a life expectancy of roughly 2-5 years.
In 2014, Gleason made the life-altering decision to live on ventilation. This would enable him to live longer, but under close care.
Varisco-Gleason stated, “The months surrounding the ‘trache’ surgery began a period in my life I call ‘the dark ages.’ The grief is relentless. Fear, anxiety, confusion all consumed me. The idea of tomorrow frightened and depressed me.”
26. Teaming Up With Technology
Things indeed seemed dark, as Varisco had described. Paralysis was rendering Gleason unable to speak or move independently anymore. Then, a partnership with Microsoft offered new hope and insight into technology as a “solution,” as Gleason calls it.
Gleason began using a wheelchair controlled by his eyes. To produce speech, he uses a tablet that reads his eye movements.
“When people say, ‘Steve is now imprisoned by his wheelchair,’ or ‘Steve is confined to his wheelchair,’ I 100 percent disagree. I am liberated by my wheelchair. I am set free by the technology,” Gleason said.
27. A Raw, Real, Inside Look
The first peek into Gleason’s life in A Football Life pales in comparison to the rawness of Gleason, a feature length documentary that premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
With Gleason, the world gained a much clearer picture of the toll that dealing with ALS takes on individuals and their loved ones.
The film was lauded for its raw, unfiltered approach. It offers insight not only into the many inevitable lows that Gleason faced, but also into the caustic effect ALS has on his marriage. Candid narratives from both Steve and Michel opened the eyes of audiences around the world. The Gleasons openly discuss the peripheral issues that arise while living with the disease.
28. No White Flags
Since his diagnosis in 2011, Gleason has carried with him an unbridled honesty. He continues to offer the world a glimpse into exactly what it means to live with ALS.
His “No White Flags” motto has, in a sense, become a mantra for so many others enduring similar circumstances.
His inspirational words have set a precedent for pALS and those experiencing other difficulties:
“I learned that by giving yourself to others, far more will come to you in return. And I learned that our being, our power and our potential, is not contained in our physical bodies but rather in our mind and our spirit.”
29. Steve Gleason Is Still Smiling
Gleason inspires in more ways than one. In fact, one of the most inspirational ways he continues to live and lead by example is through his unwavering sense of humor. Documentaries following Team Gleason humanize the former Saint, but not the way his everyday openness does.
Steve Gleason has a strong Twitter presence that offers constant updates on his status and what his non-profit is up to. It also shows he’s still got the Falcons’ number and his self-deprecating humor is ruthless – even when complimenting another team.
With all he endures daily, Gleason’s ability to laugh at life is touching.
30. Team Gleason
While Team Gleason continues to follow the Gleason family through everyday life, the focus lies on the broader picture. The Gleason Initiative Foundation is dedicated to funding the dreams of other ALS patients who share the same desire for adventure that No. 37 exhibits.
Since the first time Steve Gleason famously uttered “No White Flags,” his proactive stance on ALS has changed lives.
Whether he’s scoring Super Bowl LII tickets for a lifelong Eagles fan with ALS or helping push The Steve Gleason Act into law to provide speech-generating devices through Medicare, Gleason’s tireless efforts continue to speak for the voiceless.