Steve Gleason: The Unbreakable Saint

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Outside Superdome before Sept. 25, 2006, return
Outside Superdome before Sept. 25, 2006, return /

The Buildup

It was easy to forget in the midst of this incredible emotional catharsis that these people had gathered for a football game. In their home opener, the Saints were set to take on the division rival Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football. At the time, the Falcons were led by the sensational Michael Vick at quarterback.

The Saints were 2-0 coming into the game, thanks largely to the revelation that was the free agent acquisition of Drew Brees and his instant connection with rookie head coach Sean Payton. The past year had been a difficult time for Saints fans on many levels, but the fanbase expected to be dazzled and reinvigorated by the 2nd overall pick and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush. Brees had shown an early favoritism to the Saints’ seventh-round pick out of Hofstra college, a promising young wide receiver named Marques Colston, quickly forming the famed Crescent City Connection that gave fans some much-needed substance.

It was September 25th, 2006. A football game was to take place in New Orleans one year after the city had lost and endured so much.

A sold out Louisiana Superdome was packed to the brim with fans. Many showed up to the pregame festivities without a ticket to just be in the presence of something they had missed so dearly. People danced and sang in the now Champions Square in celebration. Many had dreaded in the back of their mind that they would lose their team as rumors swirled that owner Tom Benson had eyes on San Antonio. Many did not exhale until the ball was kicked.

As Jim Henderson famously said during his pre-game radio introduction on WWL, “68,000 fans, 68,000 emotions.”

As the ball sailed towards the end zone, many fans breathed a sigh of relief; the Saints were back.

On the Falcons first possession, they faced an early 3rd down. Saints fans were loud, making up for a year’s worth of pent-up cheering. Those who were there will attest to the magic and electricity in the air. The excitement was palpable and ubiquitous, a tangible foreign substance in the air.

The modern-day Colosseum shook as Michael Vick took the snap and rolled left as he felt pressure from linebacker Scott Fujita crashing down on him. Vick was hit and fumbled the ball out-of-bounds. It’s important to note while Saints fans were excited, they were seasoned veterans and knew with the football season came great mental hardships. The Saints would tease you, and small victories like these were worth celebrating in the leaner years.

The Saints had forced a three-and-out in their inaugural defensive series at home. The Falcons punt team took the field. Punter Michael Koenen, back to the end zone, awaited the snap.

Steve Gleason did not fit the mold of accepted football-player stereotypes.  Superficially, he was short and did not possess calf muscles and biceps similar in size to a small tree trunk. He was Caucasian and had long wavy brown hair down to his shoulders.

To the less educated on the subject, football players are for the most part labeled as dumb jocks. The high school archetype of a lumbering man who breathes exclusively through his mouth and sleeps with a well cooked steak as a pillow. They live for the violence and brutality of a sport and dismiss the finer, nuanced things in life-like art, music, politics etc.

Educated people will tell you that this is way off base and a shallow and unfair assessment of athletes everywhere.

Steve Gleason was born to break the mold.

He studied poetry and literature in college, was an avid guitar player, and cared very deeply about the health of the environment.

Each offseason, Gleason traveled to foreign countries all over the globe, his wanderlust beginning at a very young age.

Born in Washington, he was not far from the rain-slick streets of Seattle, where a grunge revolution took place in his youth. A Pearl Jam poster adorned his wall in adolescence and in adulthood all the same.

Gleason is an intellectual with a sharp wit that has not grown dull even today. He was an individual, so unmistakably unique and unorthodox that it’s no surprise he has been adopted as a true New Orleanian.

No other city in America celebrates the differences you have than New Orleans. He was lion-hearted, never letting size be an excuse for anything in his life. If he could not move through you, he would move around you with his great quickness. Later in life, that unbreakable spirit would come to serve him well, and Gleason will be the first to tell you that what he accomplished after football far surpasses anything he did while achieving his dream in the NFL.

Perhaps one of the reasons Gleason has been so beloved by the city and people of New Orleans is because they see themselves in him. To have a living, breathing example of that “Tobasco Tough Spirit” and be an ambassador for life in the Big Easy means the world to some people. From what he does day in and day out, being an inspiration to us all, to quite literally what he did on a football field, Gleason has taught us that not a damn thing is impossible, and if you remain optimistic, you just might surprise yourself.

Next: The Play