PULLMAN – An uncommon exhilaration coursed through the campus at Washington State the week before classes broke for Thanksgiving 1997. The Apple Cup approached and the Cougars were writing preposterous history that would culminate in their first Rose Bowl in 67 years. In the dark after Thursday’s practice, a sophomore linebacker from Spokane – an otherwise “very buttoned up” fellow named Steve Gleason – walked to his home near Greek Row, carried by the moment.
“It was easy for me – no one knew who I was,” he recalled. “I was just walking up the hill, past the soccer field and the fraternities, and I was thinking, ‘Man, this is what everyone talks about.’ ”
And the Apple Cup? He couldn’t have felt more confident.
“Then I saw Chris Jackson,” he said, “in The Coug.”
The pleasure Steve Gleason takes in being able to share this story is clear only in his eyes, and in looking into them you forget for a moment the cruel circumstances that accompanied him back to campus this weekend. Ten months ago, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gehrig’s disease, the ravages of which are already informing his mobility, stamina and speech, but certainly not his wit, warmth, dignity or any smidgen of his spirit, and least of all his appreciation for any scrap of Cougar mischief.
He knows that everyone knows the other Chris Jackson story – that even after all players were cautioned by coach Mike Price that week not to deliver any anti-Washington salvos in the press, Jackson went rip city, announcing the Cougars would put up “40, 50 points” and his general lack of respect for all things Husky.
But that Jackson was camped in The Coug on a Thursday, well, if Gleason thought he was confident…
“How about this guy?” he said, smiling.
And speaking of Cougar mischief, the 37-27 spanking Wazzu administered to Arizona State on Saturday night? When he met the press in the postgame, coach Paul Wulff brought a game ball he would personally deliver to Gleason, whose riveting address to the team “was about as emotional a situation as I’ve ever been involved with,” Wulff said.
Gleason is still very much a Coug and treasures the traits:
“Cougs are kind of castaways,” he offered. “Misfits. Overachievers. Other words that come to mind are hospitable. And proud.”
Especially pride this night.
The ironies in Gleason being struck with this most debilitating and, yes, deadly of diseases parallel those of its namesake. Gehrig, of course, was sport’s legendary ironman. As a player with both the Cougars and later in the NFL as a special teams buzzsaw for the New Orleans Saints, Gleason was something completely different – an against-the-odds, life-to-the-fullest symbol whose vitality and embrace of his community was as obvious as was Gehrig’s reserve and reticence.
Gleason is 34. Gehrig was diagnosed on his 36th birthday.
The inner turmoil Gleason endured when his condition was confirmed was touchingly detailed in a September story in the New Orleans Times- Picayune, through which he chose to first reveal the news. Having mostly come to grips with those emotions, he’s moved on more pragmatically.
“I’ve always lived with some purpose,” he said, “and had some intention behind my choices and the way that I’ve lived my life and that’s certainly not going to change. In fact, this is a great tool for me to continue to do that – maybe even on a larger scale.”
The public face of that tool is Team Gleason and especially the 501c3 organization called the Gleason Initiative Foundation that aims to provide those diagnosed with service, equipment and technology, and simply raise ALS awareness – which Gleason insisted is “astonishingly low.”
It was certainly raised at the ASU game, with fans holding cards that read “34” – Gleason’s number – and numerous appeals for TeamGleason.org. But it was also a personal trip, and in addressing the football team among the things Gleason touched on was, well, fear.
“A lot of life is about pushing yourself, to really explore who you are,” he said. “The challenges are what we embrace.”
He is reluctant to overuse football analogies to describe how he’s shaped his approach, but he can’t find a better vehicle.
“Sure it was shocking,” he said. “The entire discovery process was challenging, mentally and emotionally.
“But when you lose a football game, you can go home and blame other people or wallow in misery or whatever. The way I always dealt with those things was, Now what? What can I do now? It’s no different here for me.”
Before his improbable coming-out party Saturday night, Cougars freshman quarterback Connor Halliday happened to see Gleason in the WSU locker room late Friday.
“It’s so sad to think he was playing in the NFL a few years ago,” Halliday said. “That disease is so tragic. To have him talk to us meant the world. That guy is awfully tough, and that’s a great role model to have.”
Yeah. How about this guy?