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.