WASHINGTON, D.C. – Spokane’s own Steve Gleason told a rapt audience of lawmakers and NFL luminaries on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that his story of perseverance and hope belonged to them, too.
“I suppose I don’t see my story as a football story or even an ALS story,” Gleason said, “but rather, a human story. The truth is that we all experience pain in our lives. But I believe that the problems we face are our opportunity and define our human purpose.”
He received the rarely awarded Congressional Gold Medal and spoke with a speech assistance device necessitated by the degenerative disease he has been fighting for nearly a decade.
Gleason, a 1995 graduate of Gonzaga Prep who has pushed for further research and medical support for people sharing his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, became one of fewer than 200 Americans in history to receive the medal.
Clad in a long-sleeve tuxedo-style shirt and joined by his wife, Michel, and two children, Gleason was lauded not only by Washington’s congressional delegation but also by lawmakers from Louisiana, where Gleason played professional football from 2000 to 2007.
Former New Orleans Saints teammate Drew Brees, the prolific quarterback who led the team to its only Super Bowl title in 2010, told the audience he learned of Gleason’s diagnosis a year later on a bus ride in Seattle. The news, delivered via email, brought the veteran gunslinger to tears, he said.
“Of all the people on this Earth, Steve was the last person to ever deserve something like this,” Brees said. “This is not fair, this is not fair.”
But the leader of the Saints said that email also contained an expression of the will to fight ALS that has fueled Gleason’s efforts to combat the disease on behalf of himself and thousands of others.
“At the end, Steve said, and I quote, ‘I promise to fight, and believe and expect the extraordinary,’ ” Brees said, his voice breaking.“ ‘And smile, and laugh, and cry. And love our lives, for every breath that remains in my body. Please, please help me do that, until I’m 109.’ ”
The last line sparked a chuckle and a big smile from Gleason in the front row.
The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded by an act of Congress; Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana nominated Gleason in 2018. Gleason is the only NFL player to receive the award, which was originally given only to military members but later expanded to civilians and groups.
Previous award winners include Rosa Parks, Walt Disney and Thomas Edison. The first recipient was George Washington, who was awarded the medal by the Second Continental Congress in 1776. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, leader of the House Republicans, drew parallels between the country’s first president and Gleason in his remarks.
“Like Washington, Steve never quits, and he inspires others to fight for a cause greater than yourself,” McCarthy said.
Sen. Patty Murray noted Gleason’s college career with the Washington State University football team before going pro, letting fly one of several “Go Cougs” calls that reverberated through the hallowed halls of Congress on a balmy Wednesday afternoon in the District.
“Washington state could not be more proud of Steve, because he is not just an uncommon man, he is an inspiration to all of us,” said Murray, D-Washington, a fellow WSU alumnus.
Audience members included Brees, members of the House and Senate leadership and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Also present was Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who worked with Gleason’s mother to help develop legislation that ensured Medicare coverage of the speech device that Gleason uses to communicate through eye movements.
“I remember the very first time she came into my office soon after Steve had been diagnosed, and she immediately joined the cause,” McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, said of Gail Gleason. “And she impressed upon me the importance of Congress taking action.”
Gleason’s speech called for humankind to rise up to its challenges in the coming decades. He spoke specifically of scientific breakthroughs, including space exploration, that would expand humankind’s scientific understanding and one day find a cure for the disease, which is diagnosed in 5,000 new patients in the United States every year, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“We as a country and, more appropriately, we as a global species face enormous challenges in the coming decades of the 21st century,” Gleason said. “Challenges like exploring and colonizing other planets,” climate change and harnessing artificial intelligence.
The pitch for space travel resonated with fellow Gonzaga Prep graduate Anne McClain, a NASA astronaut who returned from orbit several months ago after a stint as a crew member aboard the International Space Station. McClain, in a NASA flight jacket, attended Wednesday’s ceremony on Gleason’s invitation.
“He was the only person who made me cry while I was in orbit,” said McClain, who graduated a couple of years after Gleason and who received a recorded message from him during her space flight.
The Team Gleason initiative has partnered with WSU Health Sciences to push for further research and advancements in medical care for patients experiencing ALS. That included opening the Gleason Institute for Neuroscience last year. Daryll DeWald, chancellor of WSU Health Sciences, said Wednesday’s ceremony honored the work Gleason has done in the nine years since his diagnosis to make life better for those also diagnosed with the disease.
“Steve and Team Gleason have really brought this to the forefront,” DeWald said. “For us, we’re pleased and excited to be able to broaden that mission and to extend that mission, with the Gleason Institute.”
Gleason’s medal, cast in gold, features the young football player with his left fist extended in the air on the front. The reverse side shows an image of the Pacific Northwest, with a river running through evergreen trees and a mountain peak in the distance, the words “Keep exploring” inscribed across the bottom.
Concluding his remarks in the Capitol, Gleason repeated an encouragement that has become his mantra as he fights the disease.
“If we can work to understand and solve each other’s problems and each other’s pain, compassionately, then truly all things are possible,” Gleason said.