Today we don’t always appreciate what we have or what we can do. And, we sometimes forget that some people in this world can’t do certain things. Steve Gleason is one of these people. Before he was diagnosed with ALS disease, he was a football player on the New Orleans Saints. He was not a big name when he played but he made one play that changed New Orleans forever.
Steve Gleason played two sports in college. He played football and baseball. He attended college at Washington State. He went undrafted and was underrated, but got a spot on the New Orleans Saints. Steve Gleason only played special teams.
On August 23, 2005, Hurricane Katrina came in and flooded the city of New Orleans. It was the most devastating storm that ever hit New Orleans. The Saints stadium was a wreck so they had to play every game on the road that year. That season, they got a new coach named Sean Payton. The first game played back in their home stadium, the fans were electric. It was September 25, 2006. On 3rd down, Scott Fujida sacked the quarterback on the Atlanta Falcons to force 4th down. That sack changed everything in that game. The Atlanta punter called hike and Steve Gleason went right after the punter. Just as the punter kicked the ball, Steve Gleason blocked the punt. Then another player picked it up in the end zone for a touchdown. The stadium roared and it was a crazy turning point for New Orleans.
Two years later, Steve Gleason retired and married Michel Varisco. They went on a six-month honeymoon. On this honeymoon, Steve and Michel Gleason traveled to many different places. They went to Greece, Turkey, Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand, New Zealand, Hawaii and Australia. The Gleason’s learned about the culture of those countries. Then 18 short months later, they got bad news. They went through a series of tests and got a final diagnosis that Steve Gleason had ALS. ALS is a disease that breaks down your muscles and makes it so you can’t control your body. Also it kills the motor neutrons that help you process things with your brain. It means a person can no longer be independent because they can’t walk or feed themselves, or many other things many of us do easily. Most people with ALS live two to five years. This disease drastically changes people’s lives and there is still no cure.
Even after learning of this disease, Steve took a trip to Alaska. Then he started a family and a foundation to help find a cure. He knew that he was going to die so he made clips of himself talking to the camera so that his son Rivers would remember him and understand how to be a dad and an adult. With everything he has gone through, he has always kept his sense of humor. Even though he was in a wheelchair and getting worse each day, he still wanted to do something amazing.
He called upon his friend Kevin who also has ALS. He asked Kevin if he wanted to climb Machu Picchu with him and his team. Kevin said yes and the team planned what seemed would be an impossible journey since the two men were in wheelchairs. They flew from Lima to Caste. Then they went from a bus, to a plane, back to a bus and then to a hotel. It was very tough and emotionally draining. It got even worse because the city was made out of cobblestone so it was very bumpy for Steve to drive his wheelchair. That night the crew went to a restaurant before they took the journey. They met a girl named Jenny who climbed Machu Picchu the day before in a “No White Flags” shirt. The shirt was important to Steve because “No White Flags” is the slogan for the Steve Gleason foundation. No white flags means never giving up. Jenny was so happy to see him and know Steve has made a difference. Steve had been so down but was feeling a lot better.
When the whole team got off the train, there was a narrow area to put Steve and Kevin in their wheelchairs. It was very difficult to move them off the train. First they had to go down 30 stairs. It was very steep and the team thought that it couldn’t get worse. Although, the team had to keep carrying the chairs up and down flights stairs. After making a lot of stops there was a big problem. The chairs that Steve and Kevin have are strong, but on one of the chairs the welding broke off the wheel. They had to use what they had around them to fix the chairs. They had to travel a far distance and it was getting dark. A few people had flashlights and it was very slippery. This was the hardest part of the trip. Many people helped make the trip possible, even though it was so hard physically. They kept going because it was the right thing to do for Steve and Kevin.
In the end, Steve and the entire team thought this journey was incredible. A life time ago everyone thought of Steve Gleason as a ball player. As it turns out he is much more than that. Because they never gave up, he and his team made it to the top of mountain. So when things seem really hard and you want to give up, remember that you could have it much worse.
Central Middle School 6th grader Alex Vrbensky is inspired by Steve Gleason’s story.