For WSU star, terminal illness a drive to help others
SPOKANE, Wash. -- It is an incredible story of courage and home. Cougar football great and Gonzaga Prep grad Steve Gleason is battling ALS - Lou Gehrig's Disease - which has no known cure. But, he's not waiting around for the disease to kill him. He's living life and helping others diagnosed with the same disease.
Gleason lives in New Orleans now, but is vacationing this week in the Inland Northwest. With that visit come memories of the places he loves. Those places include the halls of Gonzaga Prep, the football field on campus and Martin Stadium in Pullman, where Gleason was a football hero in the late 1990's.
"For me, there's a nostalgia to Spokane," Gleason says.
It is the ultimate story of a local boy making good. He was a natural athlete from childhood, a standout through winning seasons at Gonzaga Prep and a captain for the Cougs during the Rose Bowl season. He was always smaller than almost anyone on the field, but he played with a drive and heart bigger than the Palouse. That intensity put Gleason at the top of his game. He played eight seasons in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints. It was his blocked punt in the first home game after Hurricane Katrina that brought a broken city to its feet.
For Gleason, life comes full circle. This week, he's spending a winter vacation with his family at Schweitzer Mountain. He's spent a lot of that time looking out at the incredible view.
"There's only one place I'd rather be than sitting looking out over that view," Gleason says. "And it's up on the mountain."
Skiing is not an option for Gleason anymore. One year ago last month, he was given the news that would change everything. ALS is terminal; two to five years is the general prognosis. But, don't feel sorry for Steve Gleason - not yet.
"In some ways, I feel fortunate that some expert medical doctor said, 'Steve you have a timeline and it's shorter than you expect.' Its allowed me to say, ok, what can I do to focus on what's the most important thing?"
For Gleason and his wife Michel, that has been easy. Family, friends and lessons he learned at Gonzaga Prep have helped guide him on this new journey.
"The general rule of life is the more people you help, the more you will be helped," Gleason says. "My theory and my approach has always been - what can I do to help other people?"
Instead of focusing on his own fight, Steve formed Team Gleason. The foundation is meant to raise awareness and bring hope to others battling this horrific disease. The idea is to take ALS patients on incredible adventures - the Super Bowl this month, Mt. Rainier this summer - then, get them the technology they need to keep living. Because until this disease paralyzes or even kills him, there are no white flags. No surrender.
"We need to do things right now and really live life as much as we can," Michel Gleason said. "And we are living life a much as we can."
And, there is so much to live for. Most profoundly, Rivers Gleason. He was born 10 months after his dad was diagnosed. "We chose life," Steve says, "in spite of a terminal diagnosis."
There's no way to know how much time Gleason has left. No way to know if his voice will hold out much longer. So, Steve is preserving what he can, so that Rivers will know what his dad was all about.
"We did what is called voice banking," Gleason explains. "This summer, I recorded 5,000 sentences. From those recordings, they were able to create a synthetic voice which sounds like my voice."
And, there's so much more. Every day, Steve and Michel record 300 seconds - five minutes - of life lessons for Rivers.
"We've covered every topic you can imagine," Gleason says of the 500+ videos they've recorded so far. "How to make spaghetti, how to skip rocks, how to change a tire..."
They've recorded the good and the bad, his flaws and failures and lessons he learned here in Spokane. That's also where he met the friends he's leaning on now. Some are lifelong friends, some are former teammates - they're all helping Gleason adjust to the new challenges in his life.
"For one reason or another, I fell in with a group of friends who I think are incredible people and we've stayed together for almost 20 years," says Gleason.
He didn't forget where he came from and he's being honored in return. He was inducted last fall into the hall of fame at G-Prep; he was honored on the field in New Orleans and given a Super Bowl ring. And, last October, he came to Martin Stadium and raised the flag before a Cougar football game.
"It was pretty emotional to go back," Gleason said about that visit. "The last time I was in Martin Stadium, I was captain of the football team - now, I had trouble walking."
Those of you who knew Gleason as a kid or as a determined teenager, you must know this: he remembers all you taught him - and, he is grateful.
"If the way they've given back is any indication of what I've given, it's amazing - its a whole lot."
The road from here only gets harder. Already, Gleason needs help to get around, to feed himself, even to get out of bed.
"Coming from someone who's able to do everything better than almost anyone, it is remarkable his positive attitude and ability to live like he's living and still love life," Michel Gleason says.
The money Team Gleason raises won't be enough to save Steve. But, the research it pays for could save others and he will be a hero to people he's never met.
And, he will continue to live. He didn't let the fact he can't ski keep him off Schweitzer Mountain. Last weekend, he and Michel stood on top and looked out at the world together. Then, Michel skied down, the ski patrol carried Steve in a sled and a friend carried Rivers down in his arms. It's a testament to a family that has not stopped living. Because in the end, it's not how we die but how we lived and where we came from - and, the lives we touched along the way.
"I've been diagnosed with ALS so that millions of other people don't have to be."
Steve Gleason's G-Prep Hall Of Fame Acceptance Letter
Steve Gleason 2006 Letter To G-Prep Football Team
You can raise money for Team Gleason by buying t-shirts and other items from the website and donating to the cause. There are also two local fundraisers planned for this summer:
A golf tournament will take place June 25th at Black Rock Golf Course. Money raised will fund scholarships at Gonzaga Prep and WSU in Steve's name. They still need corporate sponsors for that event. If you're interested, email Dave Martin at Dave@summitcapital.com
Windermere North will raise money for Team Gleason with a motorcycle rally on June 23rd. Riders will take part in a 125-mile scenic poker run with three spots, then celebrate with a BBQ. Realtors and staff will cover all entry fees; they'll be seeking community sponsors to pay for the event and fund donations to Team Gleason. For details, visit the Cruizin For a Cause Facebook page at facebook.com/cruizinforacause