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Fathers, Sons, and Steve Gleason

Perhaps you’ve heard, but I’m a Coug. I’m a Washington State University alumnus and (so I’ve been told) an over-zealous fan of Cougar football, baseball, basketball, rowing, soccer, chess, softball and any team that represents the WSU Cougars. I can’t help it. I’ve tried, albeit not terribly hard, to tone it down, but I can’t.

At the time that I attended Washington State University, one of our football players was Steve Gleason. He was an under-sized, over-achieving middle linebacker on a top-5 nationally ranked Rose Bowl team. He was a team captain and could hit like nobody else. He graduated the year before me and went on to play NFL Football for the New Orleans Saints for 8 seasons. There’s even a statue of him blocking a punt outside the Superdome in New Orleans. He left football in 2008 and in 2011 was diagnosed with ALS, at the age of 34. Today, he has nearly zero motor skills and moves around in a motorized chair with a computer attached to it that tracks his eye movement and speaks for him. He started an organization called Team Gleason that has raised over $15 million to supply technology to others living with ALS. The intent is for ALS patients to still be able to communicate with those they love. The organization’s tagline is “No White Flags”—meaning, don’t give up… ever.

A couple of months ago, a documentary came out in the theaters called “Gleason.” You probably didn’t hear of it, as there were a whopping 15 of us in the whole theater when Beth and I went. And while I don’t intend for this to become a movie review, I honestly want to give you just enough inspiration that you’ll go watch it and let it affect you as it did me.

After being diagnosed with ALS, Steve and his wife found out they were pregnant with a boy. Steve realized that it was likely he would not be able to ever truly communicate with his son, let alone be alive for his whole childhood. So he began recording, literally, everything. His intent for the videos was to talk to his son so that his son could know who his dad was. And he’s pretty hilarious. This documentary is a small snapshot into those videos. And while funny at times, it’s also gut-wrenching.

Full disclosure, I’m a sap. I’m a “movie-cryer.” But normally it’s a watery-eye kind of cry that happens exactly where directors intended for you to cry. In Gleason, there were at least five or six times I cried, but this was the tears rolling down my cheeks kind of crying. The movie was raw. It was passionate. It was heart-breaking. It was funny. It was inspiring. It was perspective-shifting. It was completely real. And it made me want to live my life better than I do.

You watch the struggle of Steve realizing that he can’t be the dad he had dreamed he’d be. Yet his son loves every second with his dad. And how amazing for this boy to have these video diaries from his father. In one of the rawest moments, you witness Steve yell at his own father for forcing his version of faith on Steve. He yelled at him through vocal cords that were becoming non-existent, “I am at peace with my faith and God and who I am!” Watching and hearing him struggle to get the words out with painfully pent-up frustration, I sat completely still in my seat with tears rolling down my face. As I sift through the faith of my childhood versus the faith I have today, this scene struck me hard.

Gleason is now available on DVD (find rental/streaming locations or watch the trailer). It’s a movie largely about the father-son relationship. Perhaps that’s why it hit me as hard as it did. Perhaps it’s grieving the loss of the idea of a father-son relationship with my own dad. Perhaps it’s that I want my boys to know their dad. I want nothing more than for them to want to call me first when they succeed. And even more so when they fail. Perhaps it helps that I watched Steve Gleason wear #34 for the Cougs every Fall Saturday for my college years. Perhaps it was another reminder that I have the opportunity every day to raise two young men. And I can’t give up… Ever. No White Flags.

Go Cougs.

Aaron can be reached by email here.

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