On Sept. 25, 2006, New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason blocked the punt that got the fans in the Superdome screaming for the home team in a way they never had before. It was the Saints' first game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped the entire city and surrounding areas off the map, and it was a game the Saints were simply not going to lose under any circumstances.
When Gleason blocked the Atlanta Falcons' punt attempt in the first quarter of what became a 23-3 win, it started the ultimate catharsis for a city that refused to bend under seemingly impossible circumstances.
Five years later to the day, Gleason announced that he's facing a new battle of his own — he was recently diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. The disease affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, shutting down and eventually killing the neurons that transmit impulses between the brain and muscles.
Gleason first started feeling odd symptoms (lack of strength and motor coordination) in 2010 and he received his diagnosis in January of 2011. When he went public with the news, Saints head coach Sean Payton and many of Gleason's old teammates reacted emotionally and wondered how they could show their feelings.
Payton came up with the idea of a surprise party for Gleason, and the Saints pulled it off Monday night. Another gesture Payton thought of was to make Gleason an honorary captain for Sunday's win over the Houston Texans. Another was to give Gleason — who retired in 2008, the year before the Saints won their first Super Bowl — a Super Bowl ring of his own at the surprise party.
"This isn't about Steve having ALS," former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns, said. "This is about Steve and his contribution to the 2009 team and the championship. He deserved it."
In addition to Payton and team owner Tom Benson, 17 current and former Saints players were in attendance, including Drew Brees. Gleason's wife Michele was also on hand.
Gleason also received a key to the city from New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu.
"At the beginning of the game, I never knew if we were going to win or lose, but I was always certain that I was going to walk out of there with my head held high because I got ready, I had the right people around me and I was going to give it everything I had," Gleason said in a Monday speech. "It's the same now. We're going to give it everything we got. And I have a calming sense of certainty that we're going to win this thing."
During the speech, Gleason was unable to hold the microphone, so his wife did it for him.
Gleason has a foundation called Team Gleason; you can visit his website to find out more. We'd like to wish him and his family all the best; our thoughts are with them.