Thousands of people scrambled to get inside, but even more struggled to find a safe place outside. Torrential rain pounded the walls, flooding swallowed streets and neighborhoods whole. Almost 10,000 people without homes had gathered there during the night. By morning, the reality of survival had surfaced with supplies of cots and MREs (meals ready to eat). Inadequate sanitation, medical help, and water made the situation unbearable inside the Superdome. I was just getting ready to begin another year of high school, and like most Americans, watched the news in a daze, not comprehending the severity of the disaster nor the ensuing implications. It was late August, 2005, and Hurricane Katrina- one of America’s most costly disasters- had just hit New Orleans. The situation was so dire, hope seemed to be anywhere but there.
Now fast forward to the same place one year later. New Orleans’ Superdome had just reopened, and this time, thousands of people gathered to watch their team play their arch rival, the Houston Texans. But it was not just any football game, in fact, it turned out to be one of the New Orleans Saints’ most dramatic victories when former player Steve Gleason blocked a punt that not only won the game but sent thousands out of their seats in thunderous applause. The moment struck home here, too. As a Spokane native, Steve Gleason started out playing football at Gonzaga Preparatory School, then went on to play for the Washington Cougars, and eventually and most notably, the NFL for the Colts and Saints. Our own hero became so many others’ hero as well.
“Infinite joy” is how Steve Gleason described it. It was the return of the Saints, part of the road to recovery for New Orleans, and the rise of Gleason as a folk hero. It was the moment of hope everyone so desperately needed. Hope was back.
Now it’s September 25, 2011, five years later, and the Saints are about to play Houston again. Limping, Steve Gleason, the folk hero, heads to the center of the field, his hand rests on quarterback Drew Brees’ shoulder. The coin is tossed, and honorary captain and retired player, Gleason, wearing his jersey, number 37, holds his left fist to the crowd. His right arm dangles, limp.
The crowd rises and gives him a standing ovation, even louder than the come-back game in 2006 following Hurricane Katrina. It was “probably the loudest I’ve ever heard any stadium– ever,” said Coach Sean Payton in an Associated Press article. As an eight-year NFL special teams leader, Gleason had just announced his diagnosis of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), a debilitating and ultimately fatal disease for which there currently is no cure.
Whether on or off the field, Gleason is still the Saints’ fans greatest hero. “I see this as an opportunity to continue to be an inspiration,” says Gleason to the Associated Press, “maybe even more so than I ever have been.” For him, ALS is not the end, but rather the beginning of another stage in his life. People know gratitude in practice, and when they see someone giving, they’ll reciprocate. Gratitude is receiving and giving, which is something Gleason personally lives out. Gleason is starting a new organization called Team Gleason, which aims to improve the lives of those who have ALS, the symptoms of which include gradual paralysis.
“You have to continue to do things you love,” said Gleason, Associated Press. “You have to engage in passionate, remarkable human relationships, which have always been important to me.” Gleason reminds us to possess gratitude in all areas of life- relationships, jobs, faith communities and hobbies.
Even though people generally live three to five years with ALS, Gleason is not viewing his life as an hour glass. Last year, he and his wife, Michel, saw fertility specialists, with the idea of having their first baby. The same year he contemplated finishing an MBA grad program. A year later, both dreams have come true. Gleason completed grad school, and they’re expecting their first child in October.
There was a moment when I realized Gleason’s story has value for every human being. My dad and I were discussing his story, a time line of poignant highs and lows, as tears ran down my dad’s face and my heart began to beat, faster and faster. It was the feeling I get when I know I’m suppose to pause in life, and learn something deep. I believe Gleason is alive and will continue to live out the rest of his life because of gratitude. He treats gratitude as both feeling and action. Like Gleason, gratitude can be quiet, meek and internal, but it can also be boisterous, passionate and fiercely life-changing. In the end, it is gratitude that brings about change through belief, and like Gleason, there is power behind belief.