STEVE GLEASON, a standout Washington State linebacker and key member of the school's unforgettable 1997 team, is battling Lou Gehrig's disease. The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans reported the news in its Sunday editions. In a huge front-page story, the paper proclaims, "Former Saint Steve Gleason faces his biggest challenge -- a rare and terminal disease -- with characteristic courage."
"It's easy to start questioning whether God has this plan and why the plan would include me getting diagnosed with this disease," Gleason says in the Times-Picayune story, which can be read in its entirety HERE
. "And that's when you can start why-ing yourself to death. More than that, I've thought, what does this mean, how does this help me fulfill my purpose in life? If we have a purpose in life beyond being a cog in the human machine, mine is to help inspire people and that's pretty cool. I would like to motivate the world."
News of Gleason's health battle had been circulating among friends since the start of the year, but not made public until now, his mom Gail tells CF.C.
At WSU and in the NFL, Gleason had a reputation for being tougher than rawhide and playing with a mountain of heart -- and good thing, because he was only 5-foot-11.
Gleason ranks among the most prolific tacklers in WSU history, with 282 stops between 1996-99. He burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 1997, when the Cougars finished 10-2 and earned a Rose Bowl Bowl berth for the first time in 67 years. His tackle of Washington's Cam Cleland in that season's Apple Cup was the stuff of legend, and the focus of this 2004 CF.C feature story
. Earlier this year, CF.C picked Gleason to its All-Spokane team -- a selection of the finest players the Lilac City has sent to WSU in the 115 years football has been played on the Palouse. He graduated from Gonzaga Prep.
Coming out of WSU, Gleason signed as a free agent with Indianapolis, but was cut and picked up by the Saints. It was a perfect marriage. He played with the Saints for eight seasons as a safety and star special teams performer. His blocked punt five years ago that led to the Saints' first touchdown in a Monday night game that marked the reopening of Louisiana Superdome following Hurricane Katrina remains a lasting part of the city's recovery lore.
Gleason used his celebrity with the Saints to help others. In 2003, he formed the One Sweet World Foundation, a charitable foundation that focuses on literacy and environmentalism. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Gleason's foundation led a group of foundations and institutions in launching "Backpacks for Hope", an initiative to provide relief to young hurricane victims in the form of backpacks and school supplies. More than 7,000 backpacks were donated from across the country, together with cash donations and other assistance. The initiative provided roughly $500,000 of relief to young students and families in the New Orleans and Gulf Coast areas.
With his gritty style on the field, flowing hair, and selfless work in the community, Gleason effectively became a cult hero in New Orleans. Today marks the fifth anniversary of his famous punt block in the dome and the Saints will have him on the sidelines this weekend serving as honorary team captain.
Lou Gehrig's disease is short-hand for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. It's a rare disease that damages the nerves that control voluntary muscle movement.
The Times-Picayunea called it a "devastatingly cruel disease" that slowly shuts down motor neurons and atrophies muscles. "Although Gleason's brain remains sharp, he is steadily losing his ability to walk, talk and swallow. The powerful legs he once used to race downfield on kickoffs are now withering and unstable. The arms he famously extended to block Michael Koenen's punt are weak and frail," the paper wrote.
CF.C will have more on Steve as it becomes available. In meantime, please keep Steve and his family in your prayers.