On September 6, 2006, facing NFC South rival Atlanta, Steve Gleason blocked a punt in the first quarter of the New Orleans Saints’ first game in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. The block, which was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown, was instantly one of the most revered plays in franchise history.
“The big moment in the Superdome kind of cemented Steve as an icon in that community, blocking a punt that, in many respects, ignited the rebirth of an entire region,” former NFL linebacker and Super Bowl champion Scott Fujita said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “We just became really good friends.”
In 2011, however, Gleason, then 34, was diagnosed with ALS. His journey is captured in the new movie “Gleason,” which debuts Friday.
“I had lost my uncle to ALS about 15 years before Steve got diagnosed, so I knew this disease well, I had seen it up close, and I knew how hard this was going to be on Steve and his wife, Michel,” Fujita said. “I just wanted to be there for them for whatever they needed, starting the foundation, Team Gleason, and all the things they’ve been able to accomplish with that – I wanted to be supportive. That was the film. And just helping them accomplish whatever it is they want to accomplish – I’m here for the guy. I love him, and I know he’d do the same for me.”
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord, which results in paralysis.
“By the books, it is a death sentence,” Fujita said. “But I think it’s the way Steve has chosen to live with this disease and say, ‘I’m not going to let it dictate the way I live my life’ has been nothing short of remarkable. But I remember where I was standing at the moment he called me, Jan 5, 2011, to deliver the news. We all had a sense that something was coming. He had been having these weird symptoms and muscle spasms that were largely unexplained, but in the back of my mind, I thought, ‘Man, this sounds a lot like what my uncle went through. But until you actually hear those words come out of his mouth, it doesn’t seem quite real, especially for someone at his age. You think, ‘No way, it can’t be that, he’s too young, he’s got too much life left, the guy’s a physical specimen’ – so it was just crushing. But again, he just said, ‘I can resist this or accept it. Either way, it’s going to happen.’ So he’s attacked this thing and has a great support system around him and was just kind of off to the races to try to make a dent in the world.”
The film, like Gleason’s life, has its fair share of ups and downs.
“This film is going to take you on an emotional roller coaster with extreme highs and extreme lows,” Fujita said. “You’re going to walk into a theater and laugh your ass off and cry your ass off. Steve and his wife, Michel, both have incredible strength, but they’re also incredibly human and raw and they share their vulnerabilities in a way that I’m so proud of. But it’s also kind of shocking. They go there in every sense of the word, and to have a great sense of levity through the process – I’m just proud of them to open up the way they did.”
Gleason and Fujita initially didn’t set out to make a film; it simply morphed into that.
“This film was never really the original intention,” Fujita said. “It was just one man who got diagnosed, his wife finds out she’s pregnant six weeks later, and Steve turning the camera on himself to begin sharing himself with his unborn child with journal entries: How to skip a rock, how to ask a girl out, how to shave, how to overcome adversity, faith, religion, etc. So you fast-forward a couple years and he’s got over 1,000 hours of footage. Breathtaking stuff. Not just those intimate journal entries, but also Steve jumping out of an airplane to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the diagnosis, or getting carried up to Machu Picchu or partying back stage with Pearl Jam. All of this is there. Then his family makes the decision to turn it into a film because they recognize the impact that it might have, so they ask a few of us who are close friends and family to do something what it. So literally over backyard pizza and beer session and drawing on a white board, we form a production company, hire a director, Clay Tweel, and we’re off to the races. We get into Sundance Film Festival, Amazon buys the film, and it opens in theaters tonight. The support we’ve gotten is pretty incredible.”