Last week, a friend of mine from Austin asked about “this Steve Gleason guy” that he sees mentioned in Saints forums, Who Dat fan pages, the WWL Facebook page, etc. When I talk to friends who live in other parts of the country, it’s a bittersweet feeling to tell them the story of why Steve is such an enduring hero to Saints fans.
The New Orleans area is now thriving. Year after year, record crowds now pour into the city for Mardi Gras, conventions, festivals, and Jazz Fest…and the city is once again a “destination” tourist spot year-round, as well. There is no longer an “off season” for the New Orleans tourist trade, and the city has shown it can host major back-to-back events without breaking a sweat. Less than a decade after one of the worst man-made disasters in American history, the city has rebounded higher than a superball thrown on the parade route.
So, when, exactly, did the city turn the corner?
It started when one man blocked one punt.
On the first game back in the Superdome following Katrina, the feeling was electric. It wasn’t just a football game.. It was a rebirth. Whatever happened in the game on the field, win or lose, this was a signpost that things were slowly returning to normal. Long-time friends tearfully reunited in the stands. They knew then that the long, slow climb out of the depths of the disaster had begun.
I won’t even try to describe the emotion and the energy of the moment when Steve blocked the Falcons punt for a defensive TD. It is impossible to capture in mere words. At that moment, we knew then in the deepest parts of our soul, and we know now, that New Orleans had turned a corner. Katrina had not beaten us. The failed levees and flood waters had not beaten us. An inept government response at all levels had not beaten us. And now, a singular act by a single special teams Saints player let the world know we could still not be beaten.
That moment still echoes today in so many ways.
Today: That moment is even more important six years later, as Steve battles the demon that has robbed him of his body, but not of his spirit. The man whose split-second action was the enduring mark of a new era for New Orleans has allowed us into his world the last couple of years as he battles an illness that will take his life.
Steve Gleason knows he won’t likely live to see a cure for ALS. It has robbed him of his legs, it has robbed him of his vocal cords, and eventually, it is a bastard disease that will take him from us far too soon. But, it has not taken his true voice.
Without a doubt, the beginning of the entire scope of the amazing rebound of New Orleans can be cemented in time at the instant Steve blocked the punt. Being tagged as the person who salvaged the soul of one of the oldest, most historic cities in America is one thing. But, “hero status” doesn’t come close to describing a man who dedicated his remaining precious time to making sure that those that follow will have it better than he did.
Steve’s decision to make his plight public as he fights this enemy means that others fighting ALS in the future will have longer and better lives. Eventually, it will help save lives, because there *will* one day be a cure. Gleason’s decision to unselfishly put himself in the very public forefront as he battles ALS is the very definition of a hero. And, it is also yet another example of why the bond between this team and this city goes far beyond the football field.
Happy Birthday, Steve. Thank you for the reminder that every person can make a difference…more than once.