Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is one of the most heinous diseases this planet has to offer the human race. The victim's nerve cells slowly waste away or die, rendering the brain unable to communicate with voluntary muscles; the muscles consequently wither over the course of years until they become useless. Walking, talking, swallowing, breathing ... all deteriorate until eventually -- usually within five years of diagnosis -- paralysis sets in as the victim loses all muscle function and suffocates to death.
While medication and therapy can prolong life for a few extra months, there is no cure for ALS.
For days, I've been unsure how to treat the news of Steve Gleason's illness. I wrestled with whether to write those first two paragraphs. I don't think any of us want to picture all of those things happening to . I certainly would rather think of him blocking a punt in the reopening of the Superdome, or recall him outplaying his size for the 1997 Pac-10 champions (and some pretty crappy WSU teams after that). It's easier just to think, "Gosh, that's terrible," say a passing prayer, and continue to remember him the way we want to remember him until the seemingly inevitable happens.
Gleason doesn't have that luxury. Neither do his wife, or his unborn child.
And neither do you, if you have the courage to watch this video. I cried as I watched Gleason struggle to walk out to midfield as an honorary captain on Sunday, then weakly hold one arm in the air to lead Saints fans in the traditional "Who Dat" chant, then hold on to Drew Brees' elbow as he made his way to the sidelines. He was diagnosed with the disease in January, and it's clear that ALS already has started to do what it does. It's hard to see him like that. It's uncomfortable as hell.
But when the cameras are gone and everyone goes back to their everyday life, Gleason will still be living that reality: The reality of a man who is just 34 years old -- six days younger than me -- and staring death in the face.
I don't pretend to know Steve Gleason personally, although I interviewed him a handful of times when I covered the football team as a student. But given what I do know, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't want me to cry for him. That's not his style. Steve Gleason is a doer, a man who willed his way into an eight-year NFL career as a special teams player despite going undrafted.
Be a doer yourself. Visit Team Gleason's website. Learn about ALS, and figure out a way to contribute to finding a cure, even if it's something as modest as buying a "Better Now Than Never" T-Shirt. If you really want to go for it, make a donation to the ALS Association.
But don't let this moment pass you by. Join Gleason in his fight to become one of the small, small percentage of people who experience remission from the symptoms of ALS. Stand by a great Coug, and a better human.
EDIT: Please also consider donating to the ALS Therapy Development Institute, an organization that is already working with Gleason and to which he has linked on his website. They invest heavily in research for a cure.