Steve Gleason used to leave behind video journals. Some day, they’d be a way for his son, Rivers, to get to know his father if – and more likely, when – Gleason succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurodegenerative disease the former Gonzaga Prep, Washington State and New Orleans Saints football player was diagnosed with in January 2011.
Some 10½ years later, those video journals are now a thing of the past and Gleason’s able to relay the same messages, emotions and words of wisdom to his son face-to-face. It’s a reality Gleason wasn’t necessarily prepared for when doctors told the Spokane native he had no more than five years to live, but one he’s embraced wholly.
In a touching Father’s Day feature, ESPN’s “SportsCenter Featured” program spotlighted the bond between Gleason and Rivers, now 9 years old.
“Did you imagine you would get to see him as a 9-year-old?” ESPN’s Chris Connelly asks Gleason.
“The short answer is yes,” Gleason responded. “Every moment and every experience could be my last, so nine years later there is a sense of normalcy and overwhelming gratitude at the end of each day for the life I’m living.”
The nearly six-minute long feature revisits some of the video journals recorded for Rivers after his birth in 2011, which came six weeks after Gleason learned of his ALS diagnosis.
“Rivers, you’re home from the hospital buddy and I’m so excited you are,” Gleason said. “I’ve been thinking about fathers and sons a lot since you’ve been born. At this point it looks like we’re not going to have the normal father-son relationship. I’m going to be around, buddy. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be awesome.
“I’m going to be around until you are able to stand on your own.”
In the segment, Rivers is shown making a homemade Father’s Day card and subsequently asked by Connelly, “what makes a good card?”
“Umm, making the person feel happy,” Rivers responded.
Among WSU fans, Gleason is best known for his contributions to the Cougars in the late 1990s, including helping the 1997 team secure a berth to the Rose Bowl. In New Orleans, he gained instant fame for blocking a punt that was recovered for a touchdown in the first quarter of a game against the Atlanta Falcons – the Saints’ first home game after Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps a wider audience of Americans know Gleason for his contributions to ALS research and/or his nonprofit foundation “Team Gleason.” In 2019, he became the first former NFL player to earn the Congressional Gold Medal.
Gleason’s longtime wife, Michel Rae Varisco, says her husband’s battle with ALS still comes with daily challenges, even if Gleason’s learned how to better cope with those.
“Some days he’s like, ‘This is really hard,’” Varisco said. “… I’m surprised you don’t say that 65 times a day. He says it twice a week at this point and it’s truly, truly remarkable.”
The feature also highlights Gleason’s relationship with 2-year-old daughter Gray and captures a touching moment between the two, in which Gray climbs up her father’s legs before resting in his lap.
“A couple days ago, she looked right at me, right through my soul, Chris,” Gleason said. “Then started smiling. The joy in my heart at the moment was cosmic. Right when I thought it couldn’t get more blissful, she slid her chair back and started to crawl up in my lap. To have Gray as a daughter, it’s overwhelmingly beautiful for me.”
Near the end of the segment, Rivers partakes in one of his father’s old traditions and creates a video journal for Gleason.
“Dad, I think you’re a great leader and you teach us to be resilient in hard times,” he said. “You’re always trying to help. When times are hard, you stay strong.”
“A Father’s Resilience” is scheduled to air throughout the day on the ESPN networks and can also be found on ESPN.com and YouTube.