On September 25, 2006, professional football returned to the Superdome in New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The resilient people of the recovering city needed an emotional charge and the stage was set on Monday Night Football for just that.
Early in the first quarter, the Atlanta Falcons were pinned back in their own territory and were forced to punt. Safety and special teams player, Steve Gleason broke through the line and blocked the kick which was recovered in the end zone for a Saints touchdown. It was the first score in the stadium in nearly 21 months.
Gleason won the “Special Teams Player of the Year” award that year and continued playing for the Saints through 2007, retiring from the NFL after eight seasons. In 2011, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), a terminal disease with an average lifespan of two to five years. The disease has advanced where Gleason no longer has use of his extremities, so he uses eye-tracking technology to type, make conference calls and navigate his computer.
“Every day, every moment I have to re-assess what has been lost, acknowledge that I’m afraid to lose more and keep on going,” Gleason said.
Since his diagnosis, Gleason is diligent in his efforts to improve the lives of those with similar conditions. Along with family and friends, he formed Team Gleason which, according to its website, will help “create a global conversation about ALS to ultimately find solutions and an end to the disease.” Although the disease has no known cure, Gleason is showing no signs of slowing down. In 2013, Team Gleason set out on an epic journey to Machu Picchu in Peru, which was documented by NFL Films. Bound by a wheelchair and carried up the mountain by friends, including former teammate Scott Fujita, the team fought through adversity and completed a climb for the ages. He also spoke to the United Nations last summer, completed his MBA from Tulane University and was featured in a commercial for Microsoft.
Recently, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson donated $5 million to the Team Gleason charity which will help operate the Team Gleason House for Innovative Living. The house, scheduled to open this summer in New Orleans, will help 18 patients with neuromuscular disorders to live more independently. “Steve has this saying: ‘No white flags,’” said Benson. “If someone is going to be behind finding a cure for ALS, it’s going to be Steve Gleason.”
Gleason’s famous blocked punt is now immortalized in a nine-foot bronze statue outside the Superdome. Entitled, “Rebirth”, it stands as a symbol of commitment and rebuilding within the community of New Orleans after coming face to face with disaster. "The last time I had a 9-foot statue of me unveiled was -- never. So this is a little bit overwhelming", joked Gleason at the unveiling.
Gleason continues his mission to fight ALS, encouraging the world to join the fight and find a cure for the disease.