I was a fan of Steve Gleason long before he was diagnosed with ALS and became arguably the most important advocate for people living with chronic diseases and disabilities. Sitting in the window seat on a flight from San Francisco to New Orleans back in 2010, I realized I was directly behind Steve and his wife Michelle. He liked the window seat too.
It took every ounce of self restraint to stop myself from reaching out just to touch the player who blocked the punt during the infamous return to the Dome game against the Atlanta Falcons in 2006. As it happened, I was able to have a brief conversation with the gracious couple at baggage claim.
We talked about a mutual friend who I knew took a Permaculture class with Steve at Tulane University. I remember thinking how cool it was that a professional football player was taking such an interesting course just for the fun of it. We talked about California and the many ways it’s different than Louisiana, but that there is a strong sibling hood between the two places nevertheless.
I wouldn’t run into Steve again until the Crescent City Classic in 2016. Rather, he ran into me…literally. A sudden downpour had forced Steve under the same tent I was volunteering in and while we were staying safe out of the rain, Steve’s wheelchair suddenly jerked several feet forward, chop blocking me to the ground. We both avoided injury, and I actually thought of the run in as a badge of honor.
Since his diagnosis in 2011, Steve has been a champion off the field in more ways than one. He formed Team Gleason to raise awareness for ALS, empower those living with it, and one day find a cure. In 2015, President Obama officially signed the Steve Gleason Act, which helps protect patient access to medically necessary Speech Generating Devices (SGDs) for people with communication disabilities like ALS, Cerebral Palsy, and spinal injuries.
Last week, Steve hosted a slightly early 41st birthday party/fundraiser for Team Gleason at Fulton Alley. Deep support filled the rooms as people showed up in droves to enjoy silent and live auctions, amazing food, bowling, and all the booze you could drink. Live bands and an outdoor DJ kept the crowd moving all night with great music.
It was clearly apparent how popular Steve has become with the general public, but it’s noteworthy how much his influence has affected several current Saints players, many of which never knew him prior to his diagnosis. Zach Strief, Coby Fleener, Mark Ingram, Will Lutz, Cam Jordan, Thomas Morstead, and coach Sean Payton all were in attendance.
I talked with Strief about his favorite beers from his brewery Port Orleans. He prefers Royal Tea Pale Ale and a limited edition bock-style beer called The Deuce.
I talked with Fleener about my love of Stanford athletes. My father played rugby and won a national championship there. I thanked him for his work with SyncThink, a Stanford based company that created Eye-Sync, an eye-tracking device that can definitively diagnose a concussion in 60 seconds.
I informed Thomas Morstead that he’s a legend and team MVP in Superdome section 602, and he laughed when I told him our group tried to buy Morstead jerseys only to be duped by a fake website selling us “Sants” jerseys. I thanked Lutz for helping lessen the collective anxiety of the entire Who Dat Nation by bringing consistency back to the Saints’ kicker position.
After Jordan entered the party on a scooter with his left foot in a boot, I asked, “just a touch up?” Jordan was quick to answer, “just a touch up.” He recently elected to have offseason foot surgery, but is expected to be healthy for OTAs.
I told Sean Payton, “I really liked the locker room dynamic this past season,” and with a big smile he replied, “we have a really good group.” This is a really good group. They play for each other, stick up for each other, and they support each other, both on and off the field. Lutz committed $50 per PAT this season, which came out to a whopping $7,000 donation to Team Gleason.
Payton donated the experience of hanging out with him pre-game along with sideline tickets, twice over. He also served as part time MC throughout the night. It was clear that the coach and every player in attendance were willing to do anything they can to help Steve and his courageous cause.
Just when you thought Steve couldn’t do more to help those like him, he followed through on his hot pepper challenge, which, like the ice-bucket challenge, hopes to raise $1Million for Team Gleason. Since he can no longer swallow on his own, Steve had a liquefied jalapeño fed to him via his feeding tube. The crowd erupted when his eyes typed out his first reaction, “that was a motherfucker.” He then challenged Chad Smith, the drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to do the same, sans feeding tube of course.
After generating thousands in donations, it was almost an afterthought that Steve was then awarded the Dave Dixon Award given by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association. The distinction recognizes those who have played a decisive role as a sports leader or administrator benefiting Louisiana and/or have brought credit to the state on the national or international level.
I had so much fun accompanying my friend Julie Joffrion, whose personal training studio, All-Inclusive Health was a local sponsor of the event. We took several photos with Payton and some of the players, and I made sure to get everyone’s signature on last year’s Saints hat. I attended Steve’s birthday party a huge fan already, but left an even greater one. The T-shirt he wore sums him up best. “Awesome ain’t easy.”