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The Higher Purpose Hero Series: Steve Gleason

Born in Spokane, Washington, Steve understood the power of mindset at an early age, earning many accolades as a three sport standout at Gonzaga Prepatory. His success on and off the athletic field led to being awarded a football scholarship to Washington State University in 1996.

Upon graduation, Steve played 8 years in the NFL, becoming part of one of the most dramatic plays in New Orleans Saints’ history when he blocked a punt that lead to the first touchdown in 21 months following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In his outstanding eight year career as a special teams player and Safety, Steve served as a Pro Bowl alternate in 2002 in addition to being recognized as a member of the ESPN All Pro Team.

In January of 2011, Steve was forced to confront the difficult reality of being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the young age of 34. Despite the terminal diagnosis, Steve refuses to surrender to his illness, founding Team Gleason to help bring awareness and funding to discover a cure. 

1. What are the greatest life lessons that you have taken from your experiences as an athlete? How have applied these lessons to your daily life?

The single greatest lesson I have taken from athletics is what I call ‘dealing with fear.’  Athletes, even at youth levels, are performing and competing publicly.  When you display your talents and your craft publicly, you become open to scrutiny and criticism.  All athletes fail in someway at sometime.  The prospect of failure can be frightening, especially when people are watching.

So, at a young age, athletes attempt, perform, achieve and fail publicly.  That can be scary.

Choosing to participate in spite of this fear is something that athletes must become accustomed to.

2. You founded the 501c3, The Gleason Initiative Foundation, this past year with the a goal of raising public awareness and helping to find a cure for ALS. Due to the rareness of the disease, is lack of funded medical trails the primary obstacle to finding a cure?

I think funding is certainly a factor but  I think awareness is the most important factor.  ALS is not rare.  The difference between the amount of people diagnosed with ALS and MS is not a large number but almost no one has heard of ALS. Strangely, part of the reason ALS awareness is lacking is because people die so quickly after they are diagnosed.  When the public understands that this disease is not rare and that it kills people quicker and at higher percentages than almost any other disease I don’t think funding will be a problem.

3. As an inspirational figure and role model to so many people around the World, how would you define a good leader? How has your perspective of leadership evolved since your career ended in the NFL?

My leadership perspective has not changed much since my retirement.  A leader must have some incredible attributes to clearly communicate an objective to others while inspiring them to action.  Many leadership qualities can be learned but a few necessary elements can’t be taught.  Passion. Conviction.  The best leaders are people who clearly love what they’re doing.

4. This past year you took part in the “Shunpike Experiment”, a cross country adventure from Louisiana to Alaska in a converted Van with close friends. Looking back at this experience, what were the most valuable lessons that you took from it? 

This trip embodied the spirit of “Better Now than Never.”  We questioned whether going on an epic adventure like this was prudent considering one of us was four months pregnant and one of us just received a terminal diagnosis.   We chose to go for it.

Looking back, this was clearly the  right decision.

5. You have accomplished some pretty amazing things over the course of your life. Is there a particular event or experience that has proved to be the most rewarding?

Rivers’ Birth. Michel  and I had been trying to become pregnant for a couple years.  After my diagnosis we had to step back and decide if we still wanted to do so.  Again, we made a commitment to go for it.   This was our commitment to choose life in spite of receiving a terminal diagnosis. As I helped to deliver my son, Rivers, I received firsthand the greatest gift of my life.

6. Do you have any special practices that have helped you with confronting adversity? 

I learned from some great athletes and role models that when adversity hits it’s best not to complain or worry about things you can’t control.  Overcoming adversity is mostly about looking internally and focusing on changing one’s self.

7. How have you overcome the fear of failure when pursuing personal goals?

This is one of the greatest challenges we face.  I like to look at life as an experiment to grow spiritually. Failure is a catalyst for growth. When I look at it this way, failure doesn’t seem so scary.

8. Are there any books, documentaries, or articles that have had a huge impact on your life that you feel could positively influence the younger generations?

My favorite novel is: The Brothers K by David James Duncan.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn provides a great perspective on our country’s history.

Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell is my favorite non-fiction.

Awareness by Anthony DeMello is one of my favorite religious books.  I also like the Ramayana, The Gospels, the Bhagavad Gita, and Ecclesiastes.

Outside magazine is a monthly publication that I also enjoy reading.

For more information about Steve and his non profit, Team Gleason, please visit

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