NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - A 2006 punt-blocking play by then New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason made him a local icon. But it is what Gleason is doing off the football field that has made him a national hero.
In Statuary Hall inside the U.S. Capitol building, Gleason who is living with ALS, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He is the first NFL player to receive the highest award the Congress can bestow on someone.
Gleason gave heartfelt remarks after receiving the medal before a packed audience.
"This award from the elected officials who represent the people of the United States of America is a sublime honor for me but I feel that more importantly, I feel that this honor represents some joy, encouragement and even triumph for the tens of thousands of extremely extraordinary families currently enduring life with ALS,” said Gleason.
Members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in praising Gleason for his work to help others living with ALS and other life-threatening diseases.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., was one of the people who nominated Gleason for the award.
"If the definition of a hero is someone who takes a terrible situation and makes it better for everyone that is Steve Gleason. Thank you, Steve, for inspiring hope even in the face of extreme adversity and for just demonstrating how to live. Thank you for just being a hero,” said Cassidy.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., said Gleason has exhibited unwavering courage.
"When you got the diagnosis, you didn't take a knee and end the play, you grabbed the ball and charged ahead not for you but more importantly for all of those affected by ALS,” Richmond said.
And Rep. Steve Scalise, who is GOP House Minority Whip, recalled the excitement in the Superdome when Gleason made that critical play for his team.
"When Steve Gleason blocked the Atlanta Falcons punt and the ball was recovered for the first touchdown that night the announcers did not need to say a word, they just let the crowd roar and roar we did. That blocked punt at the same site as some of the most horrible days of post-Katrina gave us hope. The comeback of New Orleans was punctuated by the action by Steve Gleason. We built a statue of him in front of the Superdome titled, rebirth,” Scalise said.
Several years ago, Congress passed the Steve Gleason Act to ensure that people with ALS have communication devices and electronic wheelchairs.
But Gleason is not done fighting.
"If we can keep exploring, share our weaknesses with each other and compassionately collaborate to solve problems our human potential is boundless. If we could work to solve and understand each other’s problems and each other's pain compassionately then truly all things are possible. Thank you again,” he said to the members of Congress and others in attendance at the ceremony.
Gleason is determined to thrive in the game of life, despite his physical adversity and Congress has taken notice.