Saints legend, ALS advocate Steve Gleason receives Congressional Gold Medal

Shalise Manza YoungYahoo Sports Columnist
Yahoo Sports

Steve Gleason, the beloved former New Orleans Saints defensive back and special teamer who has lived with ALS for nine years, was honored in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, receiving a Congressional Gold Medal.

Gleason is just the 160th person and the first NFL player to receive the honor, which along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award in the United States.

The event drew many bold-faced names, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Congressional delegations of Louisiana and Gleason’s native Washington state, Saints team owner Gayle Benson, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and Gleason’s former teammate and friend, Drew Brees, who spoke on Gleason’s behalf.

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Steve Gleason received the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony at Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Steve Gleason received the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony at Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak verbally because of his terrible disease, Gleason uses his eyes to type into a tablet.

“This award, from the elected officials who represent the people of the United States of America, is a sublime honor for me, but I feel that more importantly, this honor represents some joy, encouragement and even triumph for the tens of thousands of extraordinary families currently enduring life with ALS,” Gleason said.

“ ... I don’t see my story as a football story, or even an ALS story, but rather a human story. The truth is that we all experience pain in our lives, but I believe that the problems we face are our opportunity to define our human purpose. I believe adversity is our opportunity to keep exploring because we will all face pain and tragedy, but it’s clear to me that beyond the human capacity of imagination, our greatest strength as a species has been our ability to bravely share our weaknesses and vulnerabilities with each other.”

Brees, who celebrated his 41st birthday on Wednesday, recalled the day Gleason emailed to say he’d been diagnosed with ALS, which has no cure.

“There are significant moments in our lives that we remember, both tragedy and triumph.

“ ... Jan. 6, 2011 was also one of those moments. I was riding on our team bus, having just arrived in Seattle to play the Seahawks in a wild-card playoff game. I was sitting in the front row as I always did, with assistant head coach Joe Vitt next to me, and head coach Sean Payton directly across the aisle.

“I texted my wife Brittany to let her know that we had landed safely, and then I saw an email pop up from Steve Gleason. Three minutes later, with tears rolling down my face, I looked at Joe Vitt in the seat next to me and choked, ‘Steve Gleason has been diagnosed with ALS.’ We were both in a state of shock; numb to the core. Of all the people on this earth, Steve is the last person to ever deserve something like this. This is not fair. This is not fair.

“Steve was as blunt and raw and honest as he could be in that email, detailing his diagnosis but also acknowledging that he was scared and frustrated. But at the end Steve said, ‘I promise to fight and believe and expect the extraordinary. I’ll smile and laugh and cry and love our lives for every breath that remains in my body. Please, please help me do that until I’m 109.’ I’m betting on you, Steve.”

Team Gleason, Gleason’s foundation, has provided almost $10 million in technology, equipment, care service and adventures to people living with ALS and also works to raise awareness of the disease and creating conversations aimed at finding solutions and an end to ALS.

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