The New Orleans Saints may have had a tough year on the field, eliminated from Super Bowl contention once again, but the team can still hold its head high.  Apart from setting several new NFL records on the turf, it can also boast of something some would consider even more important. The Saints are the first NFL team that can say that one of its own has received the Congressional Gold Medal.  The award is the highest honor given by Congress to a civilian, and Steve Gleason was just presented with the award in a ceremony in DC yesterday.

Why Did Gleason Get The Honor?

Gleason, now the eighth athlete to ever have received the honor, is known for his special teams performances while with the Saints, and for a huge blocked punt during a game against the Atlanta Falcons in 2006 at the first game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after Hurricane Katrina obliterated Louisiana.

More than that, however, Gleason is known for his work as an advocate for those suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Gleason was diagnosed with the disease in 2011.  He now has to use speech-generating technology to hold a conversation, using a keyboard that reads his eye movements to select letters and words, which are then translated into his own voice.  He said during the ceremony that his is “not a football story or even an ALS story, but rather a human story,” adding, “The truth is that we all experience pain in our lives, but I believe that the problems we face are our opportunity and define our human purpose.”

Gleason set up a foundation for ALS research, the Gleason Initiative Foundation, after his diagnosis, and this led to the creation of The Steve Gleason Act, which then-President Obama signed into law in 2015.  The legislation allowed ALS sufferers have greater access to advanced technology through Medicare and Medicaid, and the former safety has continued to advance more efforts to assist other patients over the years.

ALS leads to almost a complete loss of motor and muscular functions, but Gleason hasn’t let the disease take control of his life more than the obvious.  He remains strong in spirit and mind, and showed that his mental faculties were intact during the ceremony when he quipped, “While sharing one’s weaknesses may not be common practice for people, especially for politicians in an election year — wink, wink — sharing my weaknesses was entirely critical for me to play eight years in the NFL.  And it has been unquestionably critical to my survival and purpose for the last nine years, living with a disease as dreadfully beautiful as ALS.  Our human potential is boundless.”

Drew Brees On Gleason

On hand with Gleason was his former teammate and current quarterback for the Saints, Drew Brees.  They have remained close over the years, and Brees was happy to accompany his friend during the event.  The big day was also made special since it was shared by the birthday of both Brees and his son, Baylen.  Drew Brees just turned 41.

“There is no person on earth with the strength, courage, passion and tenacity to overcome all obstacles and make the lasting impact that Steve has made,” stated Brees to Gleason.  “Quite honestly, there was no place we would rather be than here with you right now.  And there is no person more deserving of this honor than you.”

Gleason was unanimously selected as the recipient for the honor, and the ceremony saw attendance by several members of Congress.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was on hand, as well, calling him a “true American hero.”

The award was actually approved last year, but not presented until now.  Prior to Gleason receiving the honor, Jack Nicklaus received the medal in 2014, and was preceded, in order, by Roberto Clemente, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Byron Nelson and Arnold Palmer.  Clemente was the first athlete to be given the award, which he received in 1973.