“A terminal diagnosis can really mess with your head,” he says, his green eyes locking in on letters for a fraction of a second, until he forms sentences, hits play and the words come out in a semi-robotic monotone. “Honestly, it makes you want to run away to the moon.”
The rains had pelted the city early Wednesday before clearing for the sun, the warmth of the afternoon and another cool evening. But inside the convention center, it was a climate-controlled 70 degrees or so — much like the re-opening of the Superdome that glorious night a wild-eyed special teamer broke through the line, blocked a punt that led to a touchdown and embodied the city’s ascent from the depths of Hurricane Katrina.
“Rebirth” they call the nine-foot statue outside the Superdome, of Gleason’s outstretched body on Sept. 25, 2006, the Saints’ first game in New Orleans since the flood, the death, the anger and the grief.
“We went from losers to winners that night,” says Mayor Mitch Landrieu, sitting next to Gleason on the dais with Louisiana’s lieutenant governor and Mary Matalin and James Carville, the Washington political power couple and New Orleans natives.
“The city found itself again. Luther Vandross has a song called ‘A House is Not a Home.’ Well, we lost all our physical structures as Steve is losing his. But Steve helped us find something inside us that went beyond the physical and manifested itself in a determination.
“Now he has passed football and left it behind and used what’s above and in front of him that is singularly and exponentially greater than anything that might have happened on that field.”
As Gleason spoke through the eye-powered technology, as Chase Bank donated $350,000 to the Team Gleason House for Innovative Living — a brainchild Gleason hatched just a year ago that amazingly has already been erected — reporters in the room broke the unwritten rule of not applauding at news conferences.
We stood. We clapped. And many in the room wept, for a man who couldn’t move his own body or reach out to touch his own child but had managed to move and touch so many others despite battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He made them pledge money. He made them believe technology could fight this awful disease, give purpose to ALS patients, meaning “artists continuing their art, teachers continuing to teach, architects continuing to design, producers continuing to produce,” Gleason says.
Football players, though, do not play football again.
He retired in 2008 after seven years with the Saints as the fearless special teamer giving his body to the cause. It began with muscle twitches in 2010, graduated to foot drops and then loss of muscle control. When he first had ALS diagnosed in January 2011, Gleason’s first impulse was to tell the doctor to go to hell and the find another physician.