In all his life – football or otherwise – Scott Fujita has never met anyone quite like Steve Gleason.
“He’s always marched to the beat of his own drummer, that’s for sure,” Fujita told Damon Amendolara, who was filling in as host of CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “When I first got to New Orleans in 2006, I was the first free-agent signing after Katrina. People thought I was nuts to even consider going there. And I’ll never forget the first day of offseason workouts, I was in the weight room with the rest of the meatheads throwing weight around, and I look out into the indoor facility and there’s this guy with long hair wearing yoga pants and doing these freakish yoga positions. I asked one of my new teammates, ‘Hey, who’s the guy out there with the long hair?’ They said, ‘That’s Steve Gleason. He’s kind of on his own program.’ And I just had a feeling right then and there that he and I were going to become buddies.”
Gleason and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Michel showed Fujita and his wife the New Orleans ropes. Fujita was struck by Gleason’s friendship, selflessness and perspective on football and the world.
“I haven’t run into many guys like Steve Gleason,” Fujita said. “I’ve likened him to Pat Tillman in some ways. They’re both such unique characters and I haven’t met anyone else like them. Sort of counter-culture, sort of the anti-football player, didn’t even have a TV, rode his bike around town in New Orleans, occasionally drove (an environment-friendly) pick-up truck – all these things that sounded whacky, but that was just him. World traveler, musician, had a creative mind, just like the opposite of most guys that I got to know in locker rooms.”
Gleason, of course, was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. He is the subject of the film “Gleason,” which chronicles his life after diagnosis.
Very little is known about ALS, but unlike CTE, it is by no means common among football players.
“There’s still so much mystery around this disease,” Fujita said. “I have an uncle who passed from ALS, and he never played a down of tackle football. I think 40+ percent of ALS patients are women. Most of them didn’t play tackle football. So we really just don’t know yet. That’s why, right now, there’s so much conversation around this disease, and that’s a good thing. The way Steve is living his life with the disease, the ice-bucket challenge, the Stephen Hawking movie last year – all these things are igniting a conversation, so there’s conversation. In a way, there never has been before.”
Gleason famously blocked a first-quarter punt against the Falcons in September 2006. It was the Saints’ first game in New Orleans in nearly two years, during which Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city.
Now, at 39, he’s confined to a wheel chair.
“It’s hard because knowing the kind of life he led – and in some respects you would say he’s confined in this body – that’s tough, especially as free-spirited as he was,” Fujita said. “But the way he’s chosen to take on this disease and not let it dictate how he’s lived his life, that’s nothing short of incredible.”
Gleason said from the start that he could resist ALS or embrace it; either way, it’s happening. He chose to embrace it, celebrating the one-year anniversary of his diagnosis by jumping out of a plane.
“He’s felt for a long time now that for far too long ALS patients have been sort of expected to fade away quietly and die, and that’s not okay,” Fujita said. “So he said, ‘I’m going to make a bunch of noise now.’ That’s pretty cool to see that.”
Gleason retired after the 2007 season, while Fujita stuck around through 2009, ultimately helping the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV.
“The relationship between the team and New Orleans, it’s pretty special,” he said. “Coming through that 2005 season, you really felt the sense of community. It really was about much more than just football. It’s just sort of this emotional roller coaster of ’06 through ’09, culminating in a Super Bowl, and that team and that community are sort of binded for life because of it. . . . Steve is an iconic figure, and in many respects is known as the guy who kind of triggered the rebirth of an entire region.”