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Gleason premieres in Spokane before wide release

Spokane native Steve Gleason speaks after a screening of “Gleason”, a documentary about his life with ALS, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016, at Riverpark Square in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane native Steve Gleason speaks after a screening of “Gleason”, a documentary about his life with ALS, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016, at Riverpark Square in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

On Friday, “Gleason,” the award-winning documentary that chronicles former NFL player and Spokane native Steve Gleason’s battle with ALS, opened in theaters everywhere.

But before audiences across the United States had a chance to see it, the movie was screened in advance on Thursday in Spokane for an intimate crowd of Gleason’s old coaches, childhood friends and personal fans.

“Hopefully you enjoyed the film,” Gleason said after the screening. The disease has stripped him of his ability to talk, but his eyes are still functional, so he types on the tablet in front of him with the help of eye-tracking technology. “It’s really nice to be back here.”

Gleason attended the premiere surrounded by close friends, family and caretakers – many of whom are featured in the film. Gleason’s relationship with his wife, Michel and his father, Mike and the evolution of his disease are intimately covered, including the highs and lows.

“I think for both Steve and I, we didn’t really know what to expect,” Michel Gleason said. “It’s just so personal and intimate. The good thing is, the more we’ve watched it and the more premieres we’ve gone to, the audience reception has been tremendous.”

ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a neurological disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. People with ALS eventually lose the ability to stand, speak, eat and breathe. When Gleason was diagnosed, doctors gave him about two to three years to live.

Shortly after his diagnosis Michel became pregnant with their son, Rivers. Gleason decided to keep a video diary for Rivers before his conditioned worsened past the point of being able to speak. The documentary was born from this project and uses a large portion of these videos.

“Our group has seen the films dozens of times and have been interviewed countlessly,” Gleason said. “But I know for me personally, I guess showing the film here in Spokane, for my family, for my childhood friends, and for my school and college friends, it definitely makes things very real.”

Gleason was born and raised in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep where he played football and earned consecutive MVP titles. He accepted a scholarship to play linebacker at Washington State University and in 2000, he was signed to the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent.

He was released and then signed to the New Orleans Saints, where he became famous for blocking a punt in 2006 during the first game the Saints played in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina.

It was in New Orleans that he met Michel and had his son.

Audience members who saw the film Friday afternoon at AMC at River Park Square echoed critics reviews, saying it was powerful and a realistic portrayal of ALS. And the Friday evening show times were sold out.

“It was very good,” said Lisa Martin. “I was in tears the whole time.”

The crowd of movie goers who saw the film Thursday night clapped when it ended, and cheered even louder when Gleason rolled up to say a few words.

He kept his speech short, but ended with a few words of endearment.

“Life is good,” he said. “I love you guys. Thank you. Goodnight.”

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