When Washington State University selects its recipient for the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, the goal is to find someone “who has made significant contributions to society and, through his or her accomplishments, has brought attention to the quality of a WSU education.”
It’s an award that has Steve Gleason’s name written all over it.
The university’s highest alumni honor was given to Gleason Thursday afternoon on the Club Level of Martin Stadium, where the former WSU and New Orleans Saints linebacker and safety who’s made major contributions to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) awareness was feted in front of a few-hundred people.
“Time and time again, Steve has channeled his passion for life to exceed expectations,” WSU President Kirk Schulz said during the ceremony. “Not just expectations for himself, but raising up whole communities around him.”
A Spokane native who played for the Cougars from 1996-1999 and for the Saints from 2000-2007, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. Since then, his Team Gleason Foundation has worked to promote ALS awareness while raising millions of dollars for research and technology.
Gleason’s efforts were recognized in 2015 by President Barack Obama, who introduced the Steve Gleason Act, which makes critical technology available to ALS patients through Medicare and Medicaid.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Gleason famously said “There will be no white flags.”
“I do truly believe this man would be receiving this award whether or not he was diagnosed with ALS,” former WSU teammate Grady Emmerson said. “He would’ve done something else to find this stage today, next year and in 10 years.”
Gleason attended and played football at Gonzaga Prep before accepting a scholarship at WSU.
“In the profile of the graduate from Gonzaga Prep, one of their profiles is (someone) who’s committed to justice” Emmerson said. “And it requires the skills and motivations necessary to live as a person for others. So live as a person for others. And there’s no greater person I believe that exemplifies this.”
Gleason’s life with ALS was chronicled in a highly-acclaimed 2016 movie entitled Gleason. The same year, WSU dedicated its recruiting lounge to Gleason after Glenn Osterhout gave the school $250,000 to name the lounge after the former Cougar linebacker.
“Fantastic guy,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “First of all, he was a hugely inspirational player and also he’s inspirational now, to meet him and his wife. … Just a fantastic and courageous person and more than deserving, too.”
Gleason relocated to New Orleans for his pro football career and still has his home in Louisiana, but Thursday spoke of the Palouse as the place where he set his “roots.”
“Thanks so much for this award, it’s quite an honor,” said Gleason, who communicates with a synthetic voice that’s generated by eye-tracking software. “In the schedule of events that I was given, it said ‘Steve Gleason, brief comments.’ Which is good because eyebrows and winks get a little monotonous for everyone, including me.”
Gleason continued: “One person I didn’t thank earlier was coach Mike Price. Coach Price told the football team something that would stick with me forever. He said … ‘I’m interested in what you can do for people that can’t help you in return.’ I think that is what being a Coug is all about. That’s our spirit.”