Unless you’re a New Orleans Saints’ fan, you probably hadn’t heard of Steve Gleason until recently. A scrub safety who started only one game in his seven-year career, Gleason was the perennial locker room guy. He served as a team captain, and New Orleans’ fans seemed to feel a camaraderie with his free-wheelin’ personality and adventurous spirit.
His moment in the national spotlight came after blocking a punt in the 2006 “Domecoming” game against Atlanta. The game was the team’s first to be played in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina, and Gleason’s block put an exclamation point on the Saints’ 23-3 victory. He retired in 2008, and Saints fans would hold him up as something of an icon.
Fast forward three years, and the unthinkable happens. Gleason was diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gerhig’s Disease. It’s a terminal condition that causes the body’s nerves to slowly shut down. There is no treatment or cure.
Rather than looking at the diagnosis as a death sentence, Gleason decided to use the time he had left to educate people about ALS and raise money for research through Team Gleason.
There’s no denying Gleason’s actions in the face of a devastating illness are remarkable. Maybe even selfless. But what’s more amazing is Gleason’s reaction to three Atlanta-based disc jockeys who used his condition to get a few laughs on a morning talk show.
With the Falcons set to play the Saints in the 2013 season opener, the DJs poked fun at Gleason’s condition during a skit that ultimately cost them their jobs. By this point, Gleason couldn’t talk or walk, but he used the scenario to call attention to ALS, rather than to his own personal feelings on the matter.
In a statement, Gleason said:
” … the DJs have provided genuine apology. Received and accepted. We have all made mistakes in this life. How we learn from our mistakes is the measure of who we are. I think everyone can learn from this event. It’s clear to me that, on a national & global scale, ALS is not understood, which is part of why it’s underfunded and largely ignored. There are zero treatments for ALS. If you take any action as a result of this event, I prefer it to be action to end ALS.”
Gleason could have reacted in myriad ways. He obviously knows some pretty big guys who would be quite willing to pay the DJs a personal visit. He could have blasted the media’s reliance on sick jokes as an entertainment mechanism.
But he didn’t. He took the high road and used the experience to bring more attention to his disease, not himself. Gleason’s reaction to not only his diagnosis, but his response to the inappropriate joke should be considered a really classy example of how to act when faced with difficulty, hardship and small minds.