There may not be a city in the country that knows more about perseverance than New Orleans. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina ravaged much of the Gulf Coast, and for a time at least, the hopes and dreams of a proud community.
But 71/2 years after the devastation, New Orleans is preparing for the biggest party of the year—not Mardi Gras this time, but Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3. It’s the 10th time the Crescent City has hosted the National Football League’s title game, but the first time it’s been held in Louisiana since so much of it was destroyed by Katrina. It is expected that at least $300 million will be poured into the local economy during the week. Scars will remain, but New Orleans is back.
As fans walk by the stadium on Super Sunday, they’ll come across a statue, more than 13 feet of granite and bronze that is appropriately named Rebirth, a symbol of the recovery, a dedication to a singular moment in time, one play. The highlight that will go down as one of the most memorable events in the history of New Orleans came on the emotionally charged night the Superdome reopened, Sept. 25, 2006. It happened on a punt, typically one of the most innocuous events in football, when Steve Gleason of the Saints flew into the backfield to block the Atlanta kick just two minutes into their matchup. A teammate recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown, and the rout was on.
I sat in the press box of the Superdome that night. During my career with Sports Illustrated and other publications, I have covered hundreds of games, most of which I have long forgotten—the outcomes irrelevant outside of the next morning’s sports page. But this game was different, and Gleason’s moment was different. I remember it vividly: My eyes were fixated on the punter, and then a man in a white No. 37 jersey flew through the line, his long hair flowing behind him. There were two bangs, followed by a second of silence and then the loudest roar I have ever heard in my life.
Drew Brees is the quarterback of the Saints and a future Hall of Famer who was on the sidelines for his first home game with New Orleans that night, and came away with the same recollection—as Gleason’s hands extended to block the punt “it sounded like a gunshot went off,” Brees says. Even a newcomer to the city couldn’t help but realize the significance. “It is an incredibly special memory and something that we all shared in,” Brees says. “To me, it stands for resilience, it stands for determination in the face of adversity, and it stands for what is right and great about New Orleans.”
What is not right is that Gleason is now a dying man at only 35, a husband and a father diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. How he developed the condition at such a young age isn’t as much of an issue to him as what he will do with the time he has remaining, even as his body functions and voice are taken from him. Gleason spent an eight-year pro career eluding opponents and overcoming obstacles, but he knows this disease can’t be busted like a wedge of blockers on a kickoff return, the kind of repeated collision that damaged his brain and probably put him in this situation. Still, it won’t be from lack of trying.
“I tell myself that 90 percent of success comes from showing up,” Gleason says. “Although my speech and mobility have declined, I will always be able to show up.”
With a mission to spread awareness of ALS and help others challenged with the disease by raising money for research, the special-teams standout and his family have developed a charity called “Team Gleason.” Its motto “No White Flags” is a testament to Gleason’s determination and desire to keep meaning and purpose in his own life, and in the lives of others crippled by the fatal illness.
To help him, he has surrounded himself with people who support his cause—none more dedicated than his wife, Michel, whose life has also been torn apart watching her best friend lose his.
“I accepted that Steve had this disease and that every day we would have to adapt,” Michel says. “I accepted that this was our life now, and we were going to live it as well as we could. I don’t question why, because I know Steve is a purpose-driven human—his purpose is clearly defined now, and it has become my purpose to support him and our son.”
Intent on living the way they otherwise would have, Steve and Michel decided to expand their family after finding out about his diagnosis, a choice they say many people have questioned. Everyone reacts differently to bad news. Some allow it to crush them, and no one would judge the couple if they had taken that route. Instead, they are focused on not allowing ALS to get the better of them. On Oct. 19, 2011, Michel gave birth to a boy named after Steve’s love of the outdoors—Rivers Gleason—yet another legacy of his father, another for which he’ll be proud.
To fans of the sport, Steve Gleason is known for one snap that defined him as a football player. A career backup, he was the kind of guy who stuck in the NFL through hard work and self-sacrifice, the same virtues that have resurrected New Orleans.
Thirteen months after Katrina killed hundreds of its residents, the city was on far less steady footing than now. During the rebuilding process, cheering for the Saints was what brought the most joy to the Gulf Coast. After the storm, the team finished the 2005 season as vagabonds, playing games in nearby Baton Rouge and in San Antonio, so the reopening of the Superdome became a seminal moment for the community—win or lose. The building had sheltered countless residents, and even as its roof and exterior were compromised by the wind and water, even as confusion and panic reigned inside, it stood as the best protection New Orleans could offer those who remained in the city.
When Gleason burst through the line of scrimmage at the Atlanta 29-yard line—where emergency cots once comforted neighbors in need—New Orleans found its hero, and at last, catharsis. The roar of the crowd was never more exultant, partly because of the play but mostly because it was a long time since anyone in New Orleans had something to cheer about.
Brees sums up Gleason’s legend by saying his former teammate has always given back, and his gift to the city that Monday night was only the most public. “Things you do for yourself only stay with you,” Brees says. “Things you do for others live forever.”
Traditionally a laughingstock of the NFL, the Saints would go on to win their first Super Bowl in 2009. Gleason was not on that team—his football career ended after the 2007 campaign—but the Saints have given him a championship ring in honor of what he meant to the revival of the club.
“It is our belief, as an organization, that a singular moment in time helped to change the fortunes of the Saints for the better,” team Executive Vice President and General Manager Mickey Loomis says.
Ironically, and sadly, the Gleasons’ battle with ALS became a side note in the wounding of the franchise in 2012, when Loomis, head coach Sean Payton, assistant Joe Vitt and a handful of players were suspended for their apparent involvement in a slush fund that paid bonuses to players for injuring opponents. The scandal exploded when the audio of a pregame speech by coach Gregg Williams emerged, in which the former New Orleans defensive coordinator implored his players to “attack the head” of San Francisco 49ers players, including one coming back from a concussion. The speech was leaked by Sean Pamphilon, a documentary filmmaker profiling Gleason’s fight with ALS and the Saints’ role in his journey.
“As soon as Michel became pregnant, I began creating a video journal library, documenting my thoughts on life to pass on to Rivers. It’s an incredibly rewarding and productive activity,” Steve said in a statement. “In the spring of 2011, Sean Pamphilon approached me, and we agreed to collaborate to further document my family’s journey…. The Saints trusted me and gave us unlimited access in filming, and I, in turn, trusted Sean Pamphilon…. I did not authorize the public release of any recordings. A multitude of feelings have passed through me. I feel deflated and disappointed. I feel frustrated and distracted. Nevertheless, these feelings will pass, and I will continue steadfast in my mission.”
Williams eventually received an indefinite suspension from the NFL, which is now compelled to treat issues of player safety—and brain injuries in particular—with the utmost caution. Struck by depression linked to repeated blows to the head, a frightening number of former players have taken their own lives in recent years, and brain injuries are receiving blame. According to a study released last fall by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, football players are three times more likely to suffer neurodegenerative diseases than the general population. Some former players have Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia resulting in memory loss; others, like Steve Gleason, have ALS.
Under the degenerative condition, nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control movement grow unhealthy or die, eventually failing to communicate with muscles throughout the body. This leads to weakening of the muscles, twitching and eventually paralysis. Slowly it becomes harder for patients to even breathe on their own, as their chest muscles become weak. Throughout the sad transformation, the only thing ALS doesn’t touch is your mind—making you fully aware of what is happening to your body. Gleason knows not only what awaits him, but also his legacy, how it has evolved over the past few years, and most important to him at this point, how it can continue to evolve as he spreads his message: “I lived my life to the fullest. I lived my life without fear and I treated other people, regardless of who they were, with dignity and respect.”
Gleason first noticed something was wrong in the fall of 2010. Two and a half years later, his body is frail and his speech impaired. It pains me to know that, when talking to Gleason, it’s hard for him to get the words out, even though his mind knows exactly what to say. But his desire to do good is stronger than ever.
Despite her husband’s fatal disease, Michel still sees him as the person she calls her “rock.”
“He still inspires me every single day with his ability to find happiness and purpose out of an extremely difficult situation,” Michel says. “He is still one of the most patient people I have been around. He is still the man that I married in 2008, but in many ways, even better.”
Unfortunately, Steve probably won’t be around to watch his son Rivers play sports or whatever he grows up to do. But I am honored to say I was part of history. I plan to return to the Superdome someday in the near future, and when I do, I’ll show my son the statue of Steve Gleason and tell him the story of a man who helped bring back hope and glory to the great city of New Orleans, and who embodied the very essence of resilience.
“To have a statue of you up 100 years from now… I think that’s amazing,” Gleason said at the dedication ceremony. “But I just don’t want this to be about me and that play. I want it to be about what the play symbolized…. This statue is about coming through adversity. It’s about finding your heroes. It’s about commitment and a rebirth for all.”