Several New Orleans Saints join Steve Gleason at his 41st birthday party at Fulton Alley, where he was also announced as the winner of the 2018 Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership award on February 22, 2018.
The birthday celebration inside Fulton Alley on Thursday night wasn't a surprise for Steve Gleason. It was planned, and expected.
But the honor he was presented, while planned, wasn't expected by the recipient.
The former New Orleans Saints safety and special teams ace had no idea that Thursday, during the celebration of his 41st birthday, he would be announced as the 2018 David Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award winner. Gleason will be presented the award on June 30, during the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame 2018 induction dinner and ceremony, in Natchitoches.
The Dixon Award has been presented annually since 2005 by the 35-member, Hall of Fame selection committee of the Louisiana Sports Writers Association. It is awarded an individual who has played a decisive role as a sports leader or administrator benefiting Louisiana and/or bringing credit to the state on the national and international level.
Other members of the Hall of Fame induction class include competitive-ballot inductees Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, both former NFL receivers; former Major League Baseball pitcher Russ Springer; and former NBA champion Larry Wright.
"Thank you so much for this award," Gleason said, using a voice-generating device. "I always find a way to get a special award, and that is totally fine with me.
"It is tremendous to be honored along with these incredible individuals. Thank you to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Sports Writers Association. It truly is an honor."
Gleason, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, has been a leader in the fight against the disease. His charitable activities through Team Gleason have been inspiring and beneficial to the cause and Thursday's birthday celebration also doubled as a fund raiser.
Gleason supplied one of the most notable plays in franchise history – a blocked punt that led to a touchdown in a 23-3 victory over Atlanta on Sept. 25, 2006, in the game that officially marked the re-opening of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. He, his family and friends started Team Gleason to generate public awareness for ALS, raise funding to empower those with ALS to live a rewarding life, and ultimately find a cure.
"This is a great night and I'm really proud of Steve for yet another awesome award," said Gleason's wife, Michel. "He's doing great and it's great everyone is here to celebrate with him."
Among the celebrants were several of Gleason's former teammates and a former coach, Sean Payton.
Gleason was a Saint from 2000-06; his final season was Payton's first as Saints coach.
"It's well-deserved, it speaks to the significance of what he has been to our region, our community," Payton said of the award. "But I would also say, (it speaks to his significance) to our country now. When you look at the progress we've made (in ALS research), Team Gleason has been a part of it.
"He's a unique, rare individual. I would say, those same words would be used to describe him prior to his disease. It's always been about his spirit and how he approached everything he did. He was a great teammate, fantastic to coach and so well-liked and represented (the franchise). I just think you can't say enough good things."
The high regards also are extended by the teammates he played with, including right tackle Zach Strief, who was a member of New Orleans' acclaimed 2006 rookie class.
"I think a lot of people know and think of Steve for what he's done after his diagnosis and what he's done for ALS awareness and raising funds and really putting that horrible disease in the forefront," Strief said, "but as a player and a former teammate, I think it's hard to quantify what a good leader he was as an actual player as well.
"Steve wasn't just an afterthought as a player. Steve was a guy that was extremely respected, a guy that did everything the right way, the ideal teammate. So to have him get some of these types of awards is really great. We're not the only ones that love Steve; I think he's beloved by the whole city.
"With ALS, it only affects your body. You see every bit of Steve Gleason before ALS in Steve Gleason with ALS. The way that he's attacked it, the way that he's stood up to it. Their (Team Gleason) slogan in general – No White Flags – is so representative of who Steve was as a player, the way that he played football, the way that he worked.
"My memories of him are Millsaps (College, in Jackson, Miss., in '06), and it's this legendarily hard training camp. And I don't ever remember Steve looking flustered by it at all. He was the ultimate professional, the ultimate teammate. Steve hasn't changed at all."