Over the years, as his football career progressed through Washington State and into the NFL and even after retirement, Steve Gleason would send letters to his old team at Gonzaga Prep as another season began.
Not so unusual. Depending on the depth of their attachments, players often try to give back in ways that go beyond a donation or a new set of uniforms. Gleason had even coached defensive backs at Prep one fall in the limbo after being cut from one NFL team and before he and the New Orleans Saints changed one another’s lives.
In 2011, however, the letter was a little different.
Gleason’s regular messages touched on persistence and courage, and this one did, too. And how faith, and the support of others, was necessary “to achieve something that seems impossible.”
Then instead of offering his support, as he usually did, he sought theirs.
“Inspire me,” he asked, “and support me in my own mission to achieve the impossible.”
That was in the months after Gleason had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and didn’t really know what was possible in the face of impossible odds. He has since made his own discoveries, and redefined notions for the rest of us.
It’s hard to know if the 16 and 17-year-olds he was trying to reach grasped what he wanted of them. Maybe they came away with a better sense on Tuesday when Gleason stopped by Prep to distribute checks to three of his favorite causes – and to have his football jersey retired by the school, an occasion that brought him briefly to tears.
He’ll be back in town Saturday for something more in the way of a party: Gleason Fest, 12 hours of music at Division and Main to benefit the Gleason Initiative Foundation.
As his story has gained national traction, it’s become harder to see Gleason outside the prism of his activism on behalf of ALS patients and research, and he is truly a pied piper in that regard.
But his humor and humanity are still very much there, as well as a personal vision at once steely and warm. As he works to make life better for those with ALS, he strives to salvage the best from his own life – notably as he leaves an audio and video library of memories and wisdom for his young son, Rivers, to have when Dad is no longer around.
As much of an inspiration as his son may draw from those videos, he has another rapt audience in Prep’s football players.
“We talk about him here daily,” said senior Steven Machtolf. “He is still very relevant, very present in our community.”
The endless churn of high school can fray connections quickly enough. A number of Greater Spokane League schools have done better in repairing them with halls of fame or distinguished alumni displays, though the retired jersey remains a rare honor.
Prep has been more prolific in that regard. Rob Hedequist, Terry Kelly, Tim Lappano, Lisa Oriard and John Stockton have all had their numbers put away, with their influence felt in varying degrees.
Gleason’s very public battle and story cuts a very different profile. As Bullpups football coach Dave McKenna noted Tuesday, “Retiring his jersey really isn’t about football.”
In fact, Gleason’s first reaction was that it not be retired at all, but kept in the rotation as something of a reward for a player who displayed the kind of qualities he often described in his messages.
“Which I fully understand,” McKenna said, “but really, I’m not sure anybody can earn it. The kind of things he’s done, the kind of feeling he inspires, I’m just not sure that can be duplicated.”
And, of course, the number is 34. Which means a lineman can’t wear it.
“And I don’t think Steve would feel that’s right,” he said.
There were several nice touches to Tuesday’s very informal ceremony, squeezed into a religion classroom with a luxury-suite overlook of the school’s football stadium. Prep president Al Falkner dug up some interesting nuggets: that during his days there, Gleason was a member of the Physics Club just like the nerd from “The Breakfast Club,” and that he’d acted on stage in “Much Ado About Nothing.”
There was Gleason’s own sentiment that Prep was where he acquired “the tools that matter in life.”
But most there were the sentiments of players a generation removed from when Steve Gleason wore the blue.
“It’s not about him,” said another senior, Klint Wacholz, “it’s about the people he can help. I so admire that about him. And he lives in the moment. That’s something we can all try to realize, that it’s a special time in our lives and we need to enjoy it and cherish it and make the most of it.”
And see more than a jersey number when they look at Gleason’s uniform in a display case.