Just before midnight on Sept. 25, 2006, Steve Gleason sat at his locker in the Superdome and contemplated history and his place in it.
It was less than hour after the New Orleans Saints had beaten the Atlanta Falcons 23-3 in one of the most-watched games in NFL history. Gleason's blocked punt in the game's opening minutes served as the catalyst to an emphatic victory on an emotional night.
"Athletically, it was the coolest thing I've ever done, no doubt," Gleason said that night. "I'm the little kid that dreams of playing in the NFL and doing something great, and tonight I did it. I'm never going to be a Hall of Fame defensive back. That's probably going to be as good as it gets for me."
The iconic blocked punt, of course, became the signature moment in Gleason's eight-year NFL career as a reserve safety and special teams standout.
When he retired 18 months later, Gleason said, "I'm pretty optimistic about the future. There's a lot of life to be lived out there. I think my future is bigger than my past."
Little did Gleason know the cruel twist of fate life had planned for him or how big his future would become.
Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) - also called Lou Gehrig's disease or classical motor neuron disease - in 2011, Gleason has become a global activist and role model for sufferers of the disease and a modern-day hero to countless others inspired by his courageous fight.
In almost every way, Gleason's life with ALS has been more profound and impactful than it was during his NFL playing days. His and Team Gleason's reach has extended far beyond New Orleans and his hometown of Spokane, Wash.
"The type of impact he's had after the (ALS diagnosis) is phenomenal," former New York Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck said last month after the premiere of the documentary "Gleason." "He's been a hero for anybody going through any trials and tribulations in how to handle it and how to kind of run with it and become in many ways his own legend."
During his well-documented five-year journey with ALS, it's impossible to calculate the number of people Gleason has inspired or to measure the impact he's had on their lives.
His mission has carried him from the Peruvian Andes to Silicon Valley, where he's met with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. He's hung out with President Obama and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, met with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and senate and congressional leaders to enact the Steve Gleason Act of 2015 and spoken at the United Nations and Advertising Week. Team Gleason supporters include the members of Pearl Jam, Tony Award-winning actor Michael Cerveris and fashion designer and actress Jessica Simpson, all of whom use their celebrity status to help raise ALS awareness.
"From Day One when Steve first called all of us together and started Team Gleason, I knew it would be big," said Tom Capella, the Jefferson Parish tax assessor and longtime board member for Team Gleason. "But we've raised more money and more awareness for this disease than any of us ever imagined. It's crazy."
And on a grassroots level, Gleason's popularity has greatly exceeded anything experienced during his eight-year NFL playing career. His Twitter account has almost 133,000 followers and his Facebook page has more than 106,000 likes. People have named children after him and inked their bodies with his image. His documentary film has earned rave reviews and is already receiving buzz as a potential Academy Award nominee.
"I believe heroes take adversity or tragedy and turn it into opportunity, and then share the opportunity with others so that others can do the same," Gleason said. "In a sense, we all have a chance to be heroes, do something great. I happen to have been dealt more adversity than most, so the way I look at it there is greater opportunity for heroics."
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Eight years ago, Justin Day, a 33-year-old tech consultant from Norwich, England, had never heard of Steve Gleason or his blocked punt. He would even struggle to locate New Orleans on a map.
But on a video games-inspired whim, he decided to adopt the New Orleans Saints as his American football team. During his research on the team, Day read about Gleason's heroics on the historic night of the Superdome re-opening. When Gleason went public with his ALS diagnosis a few years later, Day became even more transfixed.
"I also hooked into the 'No White Flags' mantra," he said, a large tattoo on the inside of his right biceps as testament. "It perfectly depicted everything I've tried to position myself as in life. That really resonated with me. I continued to follow the story and felt quite in touch with it. I realized quite quickly this is something really special. It gave me a feeling of humanity."
Justin Day, a tech consultant from Norwich, England, says of Steve Gleason, 'I believe in him, and I believe in the message.'Jeff Duncan, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Day scheduled his 2013 trip to New Orleans to coincide with the New Orleans Marathon, which Team Gleason helped sponsor. Through happenstance, he met Paul Varisco, Gleason's father-in-law and the executive director of Team Gleason, who introduced him to Gleason along with some Saints players and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. Day and Gleason connected over English Premier League soccer. A bond was formed.
Day returned to New Orleans in September to attend Gleason Gras and was the winning bidder on an auction to spend a day with the Gleason family at their Lakeview home. Day was so committed to the cause that he called an audible and stayed in New Orleans for the two-week interim between Gleason Gras and the big day. Day attended a Lord Huron concert at Gleason's home and visited the Saints training facility in Metairie, where he met Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
"An amazing day," Day said. "The most surreal day of my life."
In the ensuing years, Day made several trips back to New Orleans, which has become a second home of sorts. His support of Team Gleason and the New Orleans Saints has extended to his family. Daughter, Evelyn, 6, and son, Billy, 5, soon owned No. 37 Gleason jerseys and Team Gleason gear. For Gleason's birthday a few years ago, the family made a video re-enactment of Gleason's punt block and posted it on the Team Gleason Facebook page.
Day attended the "Gleason" premiere at the Orpheum Theater in June and continues to donate regularly to Team Gleason causes. He attended the Saints' season opener against Oakland wearing his favorite No. 37 Gleason jersey and will be back in stands on Monday night for the Falcons game.
"I don't doubt for a second there are days, hours, minutes, seconds where he has contemplated 'I don't want to do this anymore,'" Day said of Gleason. "But he's still here. He's still going to events. He's still getting that message out there. There's just no excuse to give up.
"I believe in him, and I believe in the message."
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Halfway around the globe, Ian Davis experienced the same pull.
An oncologist from Melbourne, Australia, Davis, 38, was diagnosed with ALS a few months after Gleason in late 2011. During his research on the disease, he came across a video on Gleason and his early battle with ALS. Gleason's story resonated with Davis. The more he read about Gleason's story, the more inspired he became.
"The parallels between our two stories is incredible," Davis said via email. "We were both around the same age when we were diagnosed, both in love, and both about to get the next phase of our life underway -- getting married, starting a family, and advancing our career. Then boom -- ALS."
excerpt © 2016 NOLA Media Group. All rights reserved.