While members of the House and Senate leadership, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees watched Steve Gleason receive the Congressional Gold Medal, fellow Gonzaga Prep alums who made the trip to Washington, D.C., including astronaut Anne McClain, sat proudly nearby for the momentous occasion.
“It’s indescribable,” said H.T. Higgins, Gleason’s football coach from the early ’90s. “The actual ceremony itself was like time was suspended.”
Fewer than 200 people have received the award. Gleason, a former News Orleans Saints player 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, joins the likes of Rosa Parks and Walt Disney. Current Gonzaga Prep students watched a live stream of him being being presented with the award.
After the ceremony, Higgins, Spokane County Superior Judge Tony Hazel, former Gonzaga University basketball player Jason Rubright and KREM news director Noah Cooper, among other Gonzaga Prep alums, posed for photos with Gleason and McClain.
And at a reception, McClain gave a toast to Gleason that touched on “their shared journey starting at Gonzaga Prep and how the foundation was really laid for both of them at a very young age, despite the fact that they didn’t know each other,” Higgins said. “We’d been working to get Steve and Anne together.”
Before McClain talked with Gonzaga Prep students from the International Space Station last year, Higgins said he received a video from Gleason with his own question for the astronaut. That video struck a chord with McClain.
“He was the only person who made me cry while I was in orbit,” McClain said at the award ceremony.
Higgins said he messaged back and forth with Gonzaga Prep math teacher Shari Manikowski, who was in Houston when McClain launched into space, throughout the day of the ceremony. The fact that the small private school in Spokane had former students in space and earning a Congressional Gold Medal within 12 months of each other is incredible, Higgins said.
“This past year has been a once-in-a-lifetime moment for our students to have the privilege of witnessing the extraordinary lives of Gleason and McClain – and their contribution to our world,” Gonzaga Prep President Michael Dougherty said in a statement.
“These two heroes have lifted up our faculty and staff,” Principal Cindy Reopelle said in a statement, “and celebrated our greatest hope for the impact of a Gonzaga Prep teacher: That they will change the lives of our students by modeling and teaching what it means to devote one’s life in generous service to God and the world.”
Within the successful Gonzaga Prep football program, Gleason left a legacy that “success is going to be viewed 10, 15 years down the road in what you’re giving back to the world,” Higgins said. “I think this sense of trying to find meaning and purpose in life was always there with Steve.”
The most important thing for Gonzaga Prep students to understand from this past year is “that Steve Gleason and Anne McClain sat in the same chairs, went to the same school,” Higgins said. “And literally they’ve gone out and set the world on fire.”
Higgins continued, “Those kids will carry that with them, and hopefully their kids will carry some of that stuff with them as well.”
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