Cougars will honor former linebacker Steve Gleason on Saturday
Former Washington State linebacker Steve Gleason discovered earlier this year he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig's disease. The Cougars will honor him Saturday, when they play Arizona State.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Months ago, Steve Gleason made the phone call to Grady Emmerson, two Washington State linebackers of the late 1990s forged together in purpose and experience.
That was the day Gleason, 34, told Emmerson he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig's disease. Gleason cried. Emmerson cried.
"I had always heard of Lou Gehrig's disease," said Emmerson, now an assistant football coach at Ferris High in Spokane, "but I had no idea what it was, no clue about the severity of it.
"As he's trying to tell me, I'm Googling, trying to find out. When I read about the average life span, that's when I hit the floor."
It couldn't be, could it? Steve Gleason, the charismatic Cougar, a sophomore on WSU's 1997 Rose Bowl team, with ALS? The ultimate try-hard guy, the one whose lunge to block a punt for the New Orleans Saints in a Monday night game in 2006 rallied a whole city devastated by Hurricane Katrina?
Among the old Cougars, there's a helplessness. What to do, how to reach out? Saturday night, WSU is planning to bring back Gleason for the Arizona State game, to honor an inspirational player and former co-captain. Meanwhile, there's Team Gleason, a broad coalition of family, friends and old teammates dedicated to providing for his family and raising funds and awareness of ALS.
But even as Emmerson talked to Gleason that bleak day, Gleason didn't know what to think. Emmerson asked him what he was going to do, and Gleason wasn't sure. To commit to a brisk bucket list of excursions might be admitting to the finality of the disease. But to shrink back to a mundane existence, well, that didn't seem right, either.
ALS is unforgiving. It attacks the central nervous system and muscles shut down. Life expectancy after diagnosis is two to five years.
"As soon as I found out, I was just crushed," said another teammate from the 1999 club, Collin Henderson. "He's an awesome, awesome guy."
Before the Cougars announced they were honoring Gleason, Henderson said, "I'll drive, I'll walk, just to tell him what he's done for my life, and for Cougs."
Gleason has lived life a lot like Pat Tillman did, without the extreme sacrifice of military service.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which made public Gleason's illness in an exhaustive profile Sept. 25, detailed some of his life's adventures: free-diving in the Galápagos Islands, surfing off Nicaragua, backpacking the Andes.
Robb Akey, the Idaho coach who was an assistant at WSU during Gleason's senior year in 1999, said one of the player's postgraduate pursuits took him to Australia, where he bought "an old beater car, surfed and hung out, then sold the car. Or gave it away."
The New Orleans newspaper wrote that after his diagnosis, he and wife Michel decided, after two years of trying to conceive a child, to have in vitro fertilization, and she became pregnant last February. The baby boy was born in October.
Early in the pregnancy, they took off on a three-month tour of the West Coast, Alaska and Canada in a customized van they named the "Iron Horse" — Lou Gehrig's nickname.
Gleason's adventuresome spirit surprises none of his former teammates, who describe a powerfully magnetic, upbeat person.
Emmerson remembers one of the first spring practices at WSU, "watching him bounce around, singing songs. You have to know that guy. You say, 'I want to be around him, I want to be like him.'
"He was intriguing, to say the least."
So it was for Nian Taylor, who would become, like Gleason, a co-captain, and a member of the vaunted "Fab Five" receivers in '97.
"The first time I noticed him was in the Regents dining hall," said Taylor. "He was a redshirt freshman, I was a Prop 48 freshman. I just remember this little guy (5 feet 11) with a big old head and big neck. He looked like a bulldog or something.
"Opposites attract. I'm from California, and he's from Spokane, and as soon as we got on that field, he started making plays, and I started making plays. He had a drive nobody else had. He was a silent killer."
Ah, yes. Steve Gleason could hit. Henderson was a freshman, trying to impress, when Gleason was a senior, and one day in practice Henderson chanced across the middle from his slot-receiver position.
"Gleason hit me as hard as I've ever been hit," he said. "You know the saying, 'I got my bell rung?' My left ear was ringing for two hours.
"I got up, he slapped me on the butt and said, 'Great job.' "
There was the night before a game at the team hotel, Akey recalls, when Gleason got up to speak to the team. The theme was on dreaming big, about it being all right to reach for the stars. Then he shared a goal with the Cougars.
"I can't wait to run down that field tomorrow," said Gleason, a Gonzaga Prep product. "My goal is to make a knockout.
"I'm not talking about knocking somebody else out. I'm talking about knocking myself out."
He was about 215 pounds back in that watershed Apple Cup of 1997, when he had a thunderous collision with the Huskies' massive tight end, Cam Cleeland, who was perhaps 55 pounds heavier. Gleason bounced off, and probably got the worst of it, but the Cougars remember how the hit, and the want-to, resonated with them that day.
"You wanted to be on that guy's team," Taylor said. "He'd lead you to the promised land."
Later, after he made the Saints, Gleason became known for his altruism. He helped Katrina victims with a drive called "Backpacks for Hope," a gift of packs and school supplies. That wouldn't surprise the old Cougars, who would see the postgraduate Gleason come back in summer to work out and help bring them along — future NFL players like Marcus Trufant, Jason David, Erik Coleman, Karl Paymah and Lamont Thompson.
"It's about service, it's not about him," said Henderson. "He loved WSU. He wanted to serve and give back."
Now his old friends feel powerless to repay him. But maybe in their acknowledgment that Steve Gleason showed them how to live, maybe that's a start.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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