- Associated Press - Sunday, September 25, 2011

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Steve Gleason may always be remembered most for his blocked punt on the night the Louisiana Superdome reopened for the first time after Hurricane Katrina _ a play that stirred an already emotional crowd into a deafening, drink-spilling frenzy.

The retired New Orleans Saints folk hero only hopes he can continue to lift people’s spirits by the way he handles what until now has been a private struggle with ALS, a debilitating and ultimately fatal disease for which there currently is no cure.

On Sunday, five years to the day after his memorable play became a symbol of a devastated community’s will to carry on, Gleason, 34, went public with his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“In a way, I see this as an opportunity to continue to be an inspiration, maybe even more so than I ever have been,” said Gleason, a 5-foot-11, former Washington State standout who forged an eight-year NFL career in New Orleans as a special teams leader and reserve safety.

Now the native of Spokane, Wash., who settled in New Orleans after retiring in 2008, is setting up an organization called Team Gleason. Its mission is to improve the lives of those who have ALS, the symptoms of which include gradual paralysis.

“You have to continue to do things you love,” Gleason said. “There’s technology available that, if I’m proactive, I can continue to do some of those things. You have to engage in passionate, remarkable human relationships, which has always been important to me.”

Gleason was an honorary captain for the coin toss of Sunday’s game against Houston, walking with a limp to the center of the field with his hand on quarterback Drew Brees‘ shoulder. The crowd in the sold-out Superdome rose for a standing ovation when he was shown, wearing his old No. 37 jersey, on the stadium’s video board.

He raised his left arm over his head to initiate the crowd’s traditional pregame “Who Dat!” chant. Brees then hugged him and walked with him back to the sideline, where Gleason’s wife, Michel, now nearly eight months pregnant, gave him another hug and a football-style pat on his back side.

Most people live three to five years with ALS after diagnosis, though some have lived longer and research on treatments continues.

When Gleason was diagnosed last January, he and Michel had been seeing fertility specialists in hopes of conceiving their first child. He also was trying to finish a master’s program in business administration at Tulane University.

He briefly considered abandoning his school work, but returned to Tulane and got his MBA.

He also had to address whether he and Michel should keep trying to start a family.

“More than ever I wanted to have a child, but it really was my wife’s decision, because if things ran their course with me, potentially she’d have to be taking care of and supporting two people,” said Gleason, who has limited use of his right arm, and who finds eating and drinking more challenging because of a weakening in his mouth and throat.

“Luckily for me, she didn’t hesitate,” Gleason said. Their first child is due Oct. 28.

When Gleason played, he was easily recognizable by the long curly locks of light brown hair dangling from his helmet, and was a favorite among fans and teammates for the flair with which he played and lived.

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