Former New Orleans Saints special-teams player Steve Gleason, whose continuing battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) serves as an inspiration to many and who has helped raise funds to help provide individuals with neuromuscular diseases or injuries with leading-edge technology, equipment and services via his Gleason Initiative Foundation and Team Gleason organization, has been selected as the 2015 George Halas Award winner by the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA).
Gleason, the 46th Halas Award winner, is the third member of the Saints franchise to receive the honor from the PFWA, joining kicker Tom Dempsey (1972) and current quarterback Drew Brees (2007).
The Halas Award is given to a NFL player, coach or staff member who overcomes the most adversity to succeed. The award is named for Halas, a charter member (1963) of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who was associated with the Chicago Bears and NFL from their inception in 1920 until his death in 1983 as an owner, manager, player and promoter. Halas won 324 games and six NFL titles in 40 seasons as a coach.
In January 2011, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS. Teaming with his family and friends, he started Team Gleason to help people diagnosed with ALS to live productive, inspired lives by providing access to life-affirming events and assistive technology until a cure is found.
His zeal for life and travel around the world has not been slowed by his diagnosis. Fueled by his slogans of "No White Flags!" and "Awesome Ain't Easy", Gleason and his foundation got to work almost immediately to raise public awareness about ALS and find ways to end the disease. He completed his work on his MBA from Tulane University, and he and wife Michel started a family with the birth of son Rivers in October 2011.
As part of his advocacy in getting assistive technology in the hands of those suffering with ALS and related diseases, the U.S. Senate passed the Steve Gleason Act of 2015 in April, which if passed by the House and signed into law, would make speech generating devices, like the one Gleason uses to communicate to the world, available to patients through Medicare and Medicaid.
In April 2014, Gleason's foundation received a $5 million gift from Saints owner Tom Benson for the Team Gleason House for Innovative Living. The facility in New Orleans' St. Margaret's Skilled Nursing Residence allows up to 18 patients with incurable neuromuscular disorders to live as independently as possible in rooms where the environment (lights, doors, elevators, TVs, computers and more) are controlled by the patients' eyes. The Benson gift will be used as an endowment for annual operating expenses for the home. Chase gave a $350,000 grant in January 2014 to help develop technologies that will help patients at the facility.
Gleason continues to be a regular presence at the Saints training facility in Metairie, Louisiana, watching the team he played for and visiting friends in the organization.
During his playing career, Gleason provided one of the signature moments in the history of the Saints franchise. On Sept. 25, 2006, he blocked a first-quarter punt against the rival Atlanta Falcons, and it was returned for a touchdown in the club's first game back in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the city. Gleason's blocked punt is immortalized in a statue titled "Rebirth" outside of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Gleason was originally signed by the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent in 2000 and was released in the preseason. The Saints signed him to the practice squad in November 2000, and he saw action in three games that season. He made his reputation as a solid player on special teams during his career, blocking four punts and was named captain of the special teams unit. After missing the entire 2007 season with a knee injury, he retired from football in March 2008.
The Spokane, Washington native was a two-sport athlete in football and baseball at Washington State from 1995-99, where he was a three-time All-Pacific 10 Conference honoree at linebacker. Gleason was inducted into the Washington State Athletic Hall of Fame in 2014.
ABOUT THE PFWA: The Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA) is the official voice of pro football writers, promoting and fighting for access to NFL personnel to best serve the public. The PFWA is made up of accredited writers who cover the NFL and the 32 teams on a daily basis. Jeff Legwold, who covers the Denver Broncos for ESPN.com, is the organization's president for 2015-17, while Bleacher Report national columnist Dan Pompei is the PFWA's first vice-president and ESPN's Jim Trotter is the organization's second vice-president. Follow the PFWA at ProFootballWriters.org and on Twitter at @PFWAwriters.
GEORGE HALAS AWARD WINNERS (To the NFL player, coach or staff member who overcomes the most adversity to succeed): 1970 – Joe Namath (New York Jets); 1971 – Gale Sayers (Chicago Bears); 1972 – Tom Dempsey (New Orleans Saints); 1973 – Jimmy Johnson (San Francisco 49ers); 1974 - Mike Tilleman (Atlanta Falcons); 1975 – Dick Butkus (Chicago Bears); 1976 – Billy Kilmer (Washington Redskins); 1977 – Tom DeLeone (Cleveland Browns); 1978 – Pat Fischer (Washington Redskins); 1979 – Bert Jones (Baltimore Colts); 1980 – Roger Staubach (Dallas Cowboys); 1981 – Rolf Benirschke (San Diego Chargers); 1982 – Joe Klecko (New York Jets); 1983 – Eddie Lee Ivery (Green Bay Packers); 1984 – Ted Hendricks (Los Angeles Raiders); 1985 – John Stallworth (Pittsburgh Steelers); 1986 – Gary Jeter (Los Angeles Rams); 1987 – William Andrews (Atlanta Falcons); 1988 – Joe Montana (San Francisco 49ers); 1989 – Karl Nelson (New York Giants); 1990 – Tim Krumrie (Cincinnati Bengals); 1991 – Dan Hampton (Chicago Bears); 1992 – Mike Utley (Detroit Lions); 1993 – Mark Bavaro (Cleveland Browns); 1994 – Joe Montana (San Francisco 49ers); 1995 – Dan Marino (Miami Dolphins); 1996 – Larry Brown (Oakland Raiders); 1997 – Jim Harbaugh (Indianapolis Colts); 1998 – Mark Schlereth (Denver Broncos); 1999 – Dan Reeves (Atlanta Falcons); 2000 – Bryant Young (San Francisco 49ers); 2001 – Kerry Collins (New York Giants); 2002 – Garrison Hearst (San Francisco 49ers); 2003 – Robert Edwards (Miami Dolphins); 2004 – Sam Mills (Carolina Panthers); 2005 – Mark Fields (Carolina Panthers); 2006 – Tony Dungy (Indianapolis Colts); 2007 – Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints); 2008 – Kevin Everett (Buffalo Bills); 2009 – Matt Bryant (Tampa Bay Buccaneers); 2010 – Mike Zimmer (Cincinnati Bengals); 2011 – Mike Heimerdinger (Tennessee Titans); 2012 – Robert Kraft (New England Patriots); 2013 – Chuck Pagano (Indianapolis Colts); 2014 – O.J. Brigance (Baltimore Ravens); 2015 – Steve Gleason (New Orleans Saints).
Steve Gleason introduced Pearl Jam at the 2013 VooDoo Music + Arts Experience on Friday, November 1, 2013 at the City Park's Festival Grounds. Photos taken by Alex Restrepo (New Orleans Saints photos)