The New Orleans Saints hero, now battling ALS on all fronts, opens up about football’s place in his life and whether he wants his son to play the game
Epic punt-blocker, eight-year NFL veteran, ALS activist: Steve Gleason is both a symbol of recovery for Hurricane-ravaged New Orleans—his blocked punt that sealed a Saints victory over the Falcons in the team's first game in the Superdome after Katrina has been enshrined in bronze outside the stadium—and an icon of strength for those fighting a devastating disease. For the first time, the former special teams ace, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2011, discusses openly the link between football and ALS and how he’d prefer his son, Rivers, not to play football until more safeguards are in place. Gleason now speaks with eye-tracking software; when asked how he felt about doing a long Q & A, he responded: “I am totally overwhelmed, which is right where I like to be. Bring it!”
On his start in football
“I was extremely passionate about soccer growing up. I played soccer almost 12 months a year on various club, premier and developmental teams. I wasn’t really into football, other than on the playground. When I was 14 one of the kids on my club soccer team asked me to come to one week of football, just to try it. I ended up really liking it. Not knowing any better, I was drawn to the contact. I also thought football was so easy, from a conditioning standpoint, compared to soccer. My freshman year in high school I played a full season at fullback and had to decide on only two sports. I chose football and baseball. I am still a big soccer fan and watch the Premiership in England and UEFA Champions League passionately.”
On the coach who inspired him
“Al Everest, the former Saints special teams coordinator, discovered me and brought me into the NFL. He taught me to block punts (I never blocked a punt in high school or college) and instilled confidence in me, saying, ‘Stud, you can play for long time in this league, if you take these concepts to heart.’ He liked to say, ‘Play hard, but most of all, stud, play smart. A jackass works hard all hours, but at the end of the day, stud, he’s still a jackass.’ I had no intention of being a jackass in the NFL.”
On Sean Payton
“A favorite story that Coach Payton and I often tell is from 2006, his first season with the Saints. He let the team go have a paintball tournament on the last day of OTAs that spring. The idea in itself was awesome, but to see 80 guys running through the woods laughing and pelting each other with paintballs was incredible. At some point, Coach joined the fray. Now, I didn't know Coach very well at that point, and I was fighting for a roster spot at the same time, so when I peeked around a tree, to see him in a bunker, I had second thoughts. But it was obvious that he had been set up with some pretty prime real estate and had been outfitted with the best equipment. He was blasting guys left and right. Seeing him, thinking his position was vulnerable, I figured it was my duty, as a bottom feeder, to take him down. Which is exactly what I did. Sniped! As he was walking out of the ‘game’ area, with an astonished look on his face, I couldn't help but yell a triumphant, ‘I killed Coach! I killed Coach!’ "
On his other favorite NFL play, after the famous punt block
“I was thrust into action at safety against the Vikings early in my career. I was a special teams ace, not an NFL safety, and I think my coaches were more nervous than I was as I stepped in on defense. On third and long in the series, the defensive call was some form of a cover 0. So the other three DBs and I were on islands, with no help from anyone. As we broke the huddle, I scanned the Vikings formation and saw Randy Moss split in the slot to my side. I nearly soiled myself. Mismatch of the century. All-Pro wideout versus a chump with only two downs at safety in the NFL, ever. Pre-snap, I literally called out, meekly, to my other safety to switch sides with me, but the crowd noise thwarted my already weak attempt. I stood waiting for the snap, trying to steel my nerves and think positive. Let's do this! The ball was snapped, and a harmless screen pass got us off the field. Crisis averted.”
On longevity in the NFL
“Everyone sees the spectacular touchdown catches, blocked punts and pick-sixes, but the league is built on discipline. Gap discipline. Route discipline. Lane discipline. Coverage discipline. My definition of discipline is, ‘Do what you're supposed to do, when you're supposed to do it.’ I had enough ability and stayed very disciplined. I watched more athletic guys come and go, because coaches couldn't rely on them to be smart and stay disciplined. Blocking four punts in my final five years didn't hurt either. If you block a punt, someone’s gonna keep you.”
On his friendship with Mike McCready of Pearl Jam
“Mike and I met in 2003 through our mutual friend, Erica Perkins. Erica and I went to Washington State together. She was coaching tennis at Georgia Southern and I was with the Saints, so we kept in touch, since we were here down South together. Mike had us sit on stage in Atlanta for a show. We got to see the band getting prepped pre-show, then met most of the guys after the show. As a big fan of Pearl Jam, it was a pretty spectacular experience. Over the last decade, Mike's family and my family have grown very close, so we've created some great personal memories together. They played in my hometown of Spokane, WA last year. Eddie said I could draw up the playlist the playlist for the show, which was such an honor. I included 'Wont Back Down', a Tom Petty song that Pearl Jam occasionally covers. Ed stopped the show before song, turned up the arena lights, and gave a little tribute to me, Michel and Rivers. To be in front of my hometown, with my best friends, who I used to analyze Pearl Jam songs with 25 years ago, was astounding. As Ed finished, the crowd started clapping, cheering, chanting and weeping. What a moment."
On Bill Gates
“When Bill requested a meeting, naturally I was pretty shocked. He was very welcoming, and more casual than I expected. We geeked out exploring the technology I use, and we brainstormed about what is possible in our future. I had a great time with him. In fact, he asked about what I could do, beyond typing, on my tablet. I figured I would play a song for him. I replied, ‘I can do anything an ordinary person can do on a Surface tablet. What's your favorite song, Bill?’ He told me his favorite song was ‘My Favorite Things,’ from The Sound of Music. I cranked out the John Coltrane version (recommended by my father-in-law, Paul Varisco) on Spotify, and we all had a good laugh. Finally I said to him, ‘We are working hard on a few ‘impossible’ initiatives, including: developing innovative, cutting-edge technology that impacts not only disabled people but also the general marketplace, and ending ALS.’ Who better to help solve what most people see as impossible problems than Bill Gates?
On Orlando Thomas, the former Vikings defensive back who died this month at age 42 of complications from ALS.
“From a cosmic perspective, 42 divided by infinity = 85 divided by infinity. I believe what matters is, Did a person have purpose in his life, and did he positively impact others? Orlando did those two things.”
On the link between football and ALS
“In the last three to five years the public has learned there is a connection between head trauma in football and brain disease. That's not my opinion. It's a fact. Additionally, some initial recent studies link head trauma as a contributing factor to ALS. If those studies end up being confirmed as true, I think I was unknowingly put at higher risk.”
On letting his son play football
“I do not intend to force Rivers into or out of any activity but... Unless there is further evolution regarding the safety of football, I believe I can make a strong case to Rivers to take his services and do something amazing, elsewhere. A recent study endorsed by the NFL said that one out of three retired players will develop long-term cognitive problems. That number needs to come down, significantly, before Rivers puts on a helmet.”
On misconceptions about ALS
"I reached out to Eric Valor, a good friend and ALS mentor of mine for his help on this. I get to be on TV and in Sports Illustrated, so I think people tend to forget how difficult ALS is for me and tens of thousands in this country. In a way, I think Eric disproves the public's misconception of ALS.
“Some believe Person(s) with ALS (PALS) are also cognitively impaired by the disease. Many think the disease is incurable, and therefore research is unnecessary. Others regard it as something very rare that only other people get. In fact, ALS has about the same incidence as multiple sclerosis, the patients are not in any way mentally diminished, and the research into this disease can fundamentally reshape the prognosis of all neuro-degenerative diseases (and possibly the very concept of aging).
“I think perhaps the worst misconception is that PALS are just dependents, either on family, society or government. As Professor Stephen Hawking (among thousands of others) has proven with his seminal contributions to astrophysics, PALS are quite capable of being productive contributors to society, whether locally or globally. People are not just physical bodies but rather manifestations of our minds. Bodies are just life support, transportation and environmental manipulation systems for our minds. More than just ‘cognito ergo sum,’ our thoughts become the creations that define us. With access to communication, our minds continue even as our bodies decline. To quote Professor Hawking, ‘My body is a prison, but my mind is free.’ ”
On his dreams
“Most significant about my dreams is that I am always healthy. Yelling, laughing, running, playing. So, I suppose the nightmare begins when I wake up.”
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