Better now than never: Steve Gleason’s story

By Frank Michael McCormack

The first time I stepped in the Louisiana Superdome I went there to cheer against the New Orleans Saints. I know, it borders on blasphemy. It was during the 2004 NFL season, and the Saints were playing the Seattle Seahawks.

I’d bought two tickets on eBay and was so nervous about it (having never bought anything online prior) that I had the tickets sent to my parents in Tuscaloosa. They drove the tickets down to me. We met “halfway” in Carriere, Miss., at a truck stop just off the interstate. Juanita from the Andy Griffith Show works there.

At the time, former University of Alabama standout running back Shaun Alexander still played for the Seahawks. I hadn’t yet discovered the wonderfulness of the NFL, so that small, shallow connection put me in the Seattle camp.

Jennifer and I sat near the top of the Dome where people pound the metal walls to distract opposing offenses. All in all, the Sept. 12, 2004, game was forgettable, with the Saints out-sloppying the Seahawks to lose 21-7.

The next images from the Superdome to stick in my head came almost a year later, when thousands sloshed their way to the Dome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The roof had been ripped off by the hurricane winds. The Superdome came to symbolize everything that had gone wrong before, during and after Katrina in New Orleans.

But a little over a year after that, things began to change.

On Sept. 25, 2006, the Saints and Saints fans returned to the Superdome in a Monday Night Football showdown with the hated Atlanta Falcons (more accurately referred to as “Dirty Birds”).

Jennifer and I had, in one of our finest moments, bought season tickets earlier that year. On that Monday evening, we made our way up the ramp to Gate A, this time adorned in black and gold. We moved as part of a sea of people, marching with excitement and overflowing with emotion. Returning to the Superdome was like visiting a tomb, raising a victory banner, turning a page and gathering for group therapy, all at once.

Green Day and U2 sang their now famous “The Saints are Coming,” along with “When September Ends” and “Beautiful Day.” U2’s lyrics “see the bird with a leaf in her mouth, after the flood all the colors came out” took on a much deeper meaning that night.

Then came the Hurricane Katrina and 2006 Saints montage. All 70,000-plus people were wiping away tears.

The Falcons received the opening kickoff and went three and out. And when they lined up to punt the ball away (on our side of the field, in fact), Saints special teams favorite Steve Gleason charged up the middle untouched, dove toward the Falcons kicker, and blocked the punt. Defensive back Curtis DeLoatch dove on the ball in the end zone to score the touchdown. The game wasn’t close. The Saints won 23-3.

The blocked punt by Steve Gleason is arguably the greatest play in Saints history. The emotion of that moment helped Saints fans turn the page after Katrina. It set up the Saints to make a run all the way to the NFC championship game that season, and it started the Saints down the road toward their Super Bowl 44 victory Feb. 7, 2010.

We celebrated the five year anniversary of that night this past Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011.

To commemorate the anniversary, Gleason, who retired in 2008, returned to the Superdome as an honorary captain. He performed the coin toss and led fans in the traditional pre-game “Who dat!” cheer.

Gleason, though, did not charge onto the field last Sunday like he did in 2006. He walked slowly this time, with a limp, aided by Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Gleason, we learned Sunday, is living with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He is 34.

ALS is a disease affecting the “nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement,” according the the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The nerve cells gradually die, causing muscles to atrophy. Only about 25 percent of people diagnosed with ALS live longer than five years, according to USNLM.

The revelation regarding Gleason set off several days of tributes and public outcries of support. Times-Picayune reporter Jeff Duncan and sports broadcaster Jim Henderson have both published extremely moving pieces about Gleason.

Gleason’s wife, Michel, along with friends and teammates threw Gleason a surprise reception Monday night, during which New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave him the key to the city.

“It’s just amazing to me that you have continued to teach us and show us, with great dignity and strength, what it really means to live a full life,” Landrieu said, quoted in one of Duncan’s stories. “It is a great lesson, and you keep giving it to us.”

Saints Coach Sean Payton later presented Gleason with a Super Bowl ring.

With Michel holding the microphone, Gleason delivered a passionate speech to the 100 or so friends gathered.

He offered this challenge: “We can talk about the blocked punt, and we can talk about rings. But what’s more important to me is what we do when we walk out of this room.”

In another Duncan article, Gleason admitted, “Am I afraid now? Yeah, I’m afraid. I’m afraid to walk in public, because people look at me. But I’m not going to stop. … And I’m afraid to go back and see my teammates and coaches because I know that I’ll feel envy. But I’m going to do it anyway. Because fear is just a feeling, and if you can acknowledge that fear, digest that fear and overcome it, the rewards are incredible.”

And elsewhere, he said, “It’s easy to start questioning whether God has this plan and why the plan would include me getting diagnosed with this disease. And that’s when you can start why-ing yourself to death. More than that, I’ve thought, what does this mean, how does this help me fulfill my purpose in life? If we have a purpose in life beyond being a cog in the human machine, mine is to help inspire people and that’s pretty cool. I would like to motivate the world.”

In other words, Gleason hasn’t stopped living. If anything, he’s living more richly than ever. After his diagnosis, he and his wife went on a cross-country adventure. They’re expecting their first child at the end of October. He’s filming a documentary for their child, and he’s starting an organization to benefit those living with ALS called Team Gleason.

Team Gleason’s theme is “Better now than never.”

For us last Sunday, driving to the Superdome, seeing the crowd, cheering for our team and high-five-ing friends, was a great way to reflect on the past five years. A lot has happened, for sure. But learning about Gleason’s diagnosis and reading about his approach to life made me do more than just reflect on the past five years. It also got me to thinking about how I’m living today and how I want to live in the future.

Have I always lived with intensity and purpose? No. Have I made more calls and personal visits than sent text messages and emails? No. Which do I pursue more – entertainment or adventure? Which do I value more – that which is fleeting or that which lasts forever?

Watching Steve Gleason makes me want to live with more passion and purpose for life.

Better now than never.

Visit Team Gleason’s website.

Jim Henderson: We must never forget Steve Gleason

Jeff Duncan: “New Orleans Saints cult hero Steve Gleason battling ALS”

Memoirs of a Mardi Gras maniac

Mardi Gras fell on March 8 in 2011, which is the second latest day it can fall on.

By Frank Michael McCormack Jr.

I’m not ashamed to admit it: Carnival season is one of my favorite times of the year. Some of my favorite New Orleans memories and traditions are tied to Mardi Gras. And with Mardi Gras 2011 now in the rearview mirror, I’ve been reflecting on some of my Carnival memories from the past few years. These are just a few:

First impressions

For all the hardships faced in 2005, Jennifer and I will always remember that year for our first taste of Carnival. It was a season of introductions – to King Cakes, to parades, and to leftover bags of beads. Just going to the parades was an adventure to us newcomers, not to mention the colorful floats, awesome throws and epic people watching.

Ground rules

I had a professor once who, when introducing Mardi Gras to students from outside Louisiana, said, “When it comes to Mardi Gras, you find what you look for.”

Coconut, King Cake and lace

In 2006, though still exiled in Chattanooga, Tenn., we were determined to make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Just six months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was still a wreck in February 2006. But Mardi Gras gave the city a chance to prove that things really were getting better, and it was a way for us to prove to ourselves that we were on the mend as well.

We set out that Mardi Gras day with one goal: to get a Zulu coconut. On Mardi Gras day, the Krewe of Zulu parades first and is followed by Rex, King of Carnival. Zulu is famous, among other things, for its painted coconuts that riders pass out.

Jen and I worked hard to talk rider after rider into bestowing upon us a blessed coconut. We were coming up empty. Jennifer tried to charm a six year old girl on one float. When a mischievous grin appeared on the girl’s face, we thought she was about to pass Jen a coconut. Instead, the little girl dropped some lacy Zulu underwear into Jen’s upheld hands. Not quite what she was expecting.

Farther down the parade route, I offered the same girl’s dad a King Cake in exchange for a coconut. Apparently they only had one left and it was one the little girl had decorated. So the dad handed the cake to the girl, who carefully examined it for a couple minutes, then gave an approving nod. Success! We had a coconut and some underwear to boot.

Familiar faces and places

So much about Mardi Gras revolves around family, friends and traditions. We only have seven Carnivals under our belt, but even we have a few. 1) Our parking spot. It’s amazing. Same spot every year. I don’t understand why no one else has discovered this spot. But I’ll never tell. 2) Every year we set up around the Lutheran church near St. Charles and Jackson Avenues. We see the same people each year, like the dress guy and his wife who knows everyone in Zulu, the Blues Brother, Captain America and Wonder Woman. 3) Our lunch spot: the Popeye’s on Paris Avenue. We love it because many of the Zulu paraders show up after the parade.

Spike Lee and Lombardi Gras

The Saint’s Super Bowl win in February 2010 jumpstarted a unique Mardi Gras. From the victory parade that featured signature floats from all the big parades to Saints coaches and players riding in the parades, it was a Carnival like no other. Mardi Gras already carries a spirit of unity among the paraders and people along the parade route. The Super Bowl championship only heightened that feeling of unity. Everyone came out to see “Our Boys” on parade. We even ran into Spike Lee, who was documenting Lombardi Gras.

From King Cakes to fried fish

Mardi Gras is also special for what comes afterwards, particularly with regard to the menu. Lent, which begins on the Wednesday after Fat Tuesday, signals seasonal Friday fish fries and superb St. Patrick’s Day parades. At the Irish, Italian (and Islenos) parades, watch for flying potatoes, cabbages and other produce. You can eat for weeks off of what you catch. Look for a fish fry at your neighborhood Catholic church.

Connecting Carnival to Lent

Mardi Gras may be one of my favorite times of the year, but it’s Carnival’s place in the broader liturgical calendar that I especially enjoy. I love having so much of the year organized around the story line of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.

When it comes to Mardi Gras, though, people too often settle for one of two extremes.

On one side are those who object to Mardi Gras altogether and believe that any parading puts you on the path to personal disaster. These people often claim they’re pro-Lent but anti-Carnival.

On the other side are those who revel in Mardi Gras with no observance of Lent.

I for one think the two go together quite well. It’s hard to observe Lent – a time of introspection, penitence and self denial – without first feasting. And the Carnival celebration lacks much of its meaning without being juxtaposed with a sober appraisal of one’s relationship with God.

The power of both lies in the contrast of one to the other.

For those who wholeheartedly object to the feasting and revelry of Mardi Gras, let’s just be honest: For most of us, everyday is Fat Tuesday. We all live indulgent lives compared to most of the world. Maybe it’s good to revel in that for a season each year to remind us of our tendency toward greediness and also to celebrate how precious life is.

After all, each day we live in a world where Jesus was born in a manger, yet we set aside a specific season each year to commemorate it. And each day we live in a world where Jesus was raised from the dead, yet we dedicate one Sunday each year to celebrate it.

And each day we live in a world full of sunshine and friends and food and family – all of which are priceless gifts from God. With that in view, Carnival season takes on a much deeper meaning, especially when teamed with Lent.

On the other hand, many shy away from dedicating the 40 days of Lent to serious, honest, inward examination and some kind of self denial. Seeking to see ourselves as God sees us, after all, can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable. But Lenten introspection should also remind us of God’s love and motivate us to a deeper relationship with him.

During Lent, some people deny themselves a favorite treat, like chocolate or ice cream. Others fast from all food or from meat on Fridays. Those things are certainly admirable (and often very difficult), but don’t forget to connect the spiritual dots. We deny ourselves simple pleasures during Lent to point us to Jesus, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross,” as Philippians 2 says. Lent leads us first to Good Friday, then to Easter Sunday.

So as we embark on this Lenten season, consider this challenge from New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Archbishop Aymond has called Christians to a threefold observance of Lent this year. First, identify something from which to abstain. Second, identify a new action or discipline to begin that will deepen your relationship with God. And third, devote time to pray specifically for the issue of violence in the New Orleans community.

……………………………………………………………………………………..

Click below to see some sights and sounds from Mardi Gras:

No longer reigning, but still champions

By Frank Michael McCormack

Sunday night, a new Super Bowl champion was crowned – the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 to win Super Bowl 45. And in doing so, the crown passed from the New Orleans Saints, champions of Super Bowl 44.

The Times-Picayune summed up the Saints 43 year road to a Super Bowl championship with an emphatic "AMEN!"

That’s right. For a year – that’s 12 months, or 52 weeks, or 365 days, or 8760 hours, or … well, you get the point – the Saints were “Defending Super Bowl Champs.” That had such a great ring to it. And beginning with training camp last summer, the Saints were in pursuit of the illusive “Two Dat” (a.k.a. back-to-back Super Bowl wins).

The quest for the Two Dat ended when the Saints lost to the Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs. And Sunday, when the game clock in Cowboys Stadium ticked down to zero and the Packers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, the Saints were finally forced to give up the title “Defending Super Bowl Champs.”

New Orleans’ and the Gulf South’s yearlong “Party with the Lombardi,” at long last, has ended. Or has it?

No doubt, many will insist that Saints fans cease to wear gear that bears the Super Bowl 44 logo. Outside the New Orleans area, “Who Dat” may no longer be gladly reciprocated, but instead answered with “That’s so last year.” In a world stuck on “what have you done for me lately,” victorious exclamation points from last year can quickly be twisted into doubtful question marks this year.

But this need not be the case.

After all, what husband, on his first wedding anniversary, turns to his wife and says “That’s so last year” and lives to tell of it? And what parent refuses to celebrate his or her child’s first birthday, calling it “yesterday’s news”?

There’s a reason why events like these are called life-changing events. Though many people get married or have children or realize a great personal achievement, that doesn’t minimize the wonderfulness of your marriage or your children or your crowning achievement.

So as the Who Dat Nation celebrates the first anniversary of the Saints’ first world championship, let this be a time to look back, look forward and look inward.

Looking back: ‘Just wait ‘til last year’

Celebrating anniversaries involves, first, a look back at life leading up to the event. And for Saints fans, that’s a lot of history.

Beginning with that first season in 1967 and for the next 43 years, Saints fans consoled each other annually with the phrase “Just wait ‘til next year.” “Next year” held endless possibilities and dreams of grandeur. But year after year, the possibilities of this year faded to hopes for next year. And some years were harder than others. But through all the losing seasons, big game meltdowns, and occasional bag heads, Saints fans never lost hope.

Then came the 2009 season. Win after win, as the Saints marched to a 13-3 regular season record, people around New Orleans began to wonder “Could this be the year?” And when Saints kicker Garrett Hartley kicked the game-winning field goal in the NFC Championship game, fans celebrated to the words of Jim Henderson, the voice of the Saints: “Pigs have flown! Hell has frozen over! The Saints are on their way to the Super Bowl!”

A sign at the Super Bowl said it well: “This is next year!”

But looking back reminds you that, for residents of the Gulf South, the Saints’ march to Super Bowl 44 really was, as another sign read, “about more than just football.” It was a bookend to 5 years of fighting back after Hurricane Katrina. The Super Bowl victory wasn’t just a victory for the players, the coaches or the organization. It was a victory for the whole community.

The Saints won it, but we did it together. That unity was seen in the thousands who met the team at the airport after each game and in the crime-less streets of New Orleans during each game. That unity culminated in the Super Bowl victory parade Feb. 9, 2010, when a million-plus from all walks of life stood side-by-side to celebrate together.

“Next year” had finally come. We, against all odds, were champions.

Looking forward: Building a dynasty

Anniversaries also point you toward the future.

Over the past year, Saints fans have, understandably, continued to revel in that Feb. 7, 2010, win against the Indianapolis Colts. But as the opportunity of a Two Dat slipped away, attention began to truly turn from the greatness of last year to the possibilities for the future. The pieces are in place for greatness, year in and year out. The only question is, Will the Saints achieve it?

But if the Saints can be champions, what does that mean for this community? What can the New Orleans community and the Gulf South accomplish over the next 5 or 10 years? Together, we’ve rebuilt after Katrina and survived the BP oil spill. Together, we won a Super Bowl. What else can we do together?

So as you look back at Super Bowl 44, let it inspire you to aspire to great things in the future.

Looking inward: Embracing your identity

But perhaps the most important part of an anniversary is looking inward. The life-changing events we commemorate redefine us and often accentuate what defines us. Remembering the events helps us reclaim and recommit to that identity.

After the Saints’ big Super Bowl win, it would have been easy for the team to take a break from their “For New Orleans” mantra. After carrying a region on their shoulders for four or five years, the team could’ve easily laid down that banner.

But instead, they ramped up their work in the community, motivating students, sponsoring events like Feed the Children and distributing meals in communities hard-hit by the BP oil spill.

Instead of basking in the glow of their victory, the team got back to work. It seems that, while the Katrina recovery is a motivator for the Saints – and understandably so! – it isn’t the only motivator. While this is a recovering community, it is, underneath all that, their community. And they have a role to play in it.

So the question is, what is your community? What is your identity in that community? And what role is yours to play in it?

On this, the first anniversary of the Saints Super Bowl victory, let no one rob you of the joy of celebrating it. Because, after all, it’s your victory as well. But let it not be an empty celebration.

Look back. Look forward. Look inward.

………………

Click on the links below to relive some of the high points from last year’s Super Bowl victory. If you have any favorite videos from last year’s Super Bowl run, feel free to share them as well.