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2012 Kathi Goertzen Coug of the Year: Steve Gleason

The former Cougar linebacker is on both an inspiring and heartbreaking journey as he battles ALS.

Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

This is part four in a five part series where we highlight the 2012 Kathi Goertzen Coug of the Year nominees. Next up: Travis Long

It's rare for a franchise's defining moment to come on an obscure play. You wouldn't normally see an entire fan base remember a right fielder throwing out a runner at home in May or a three quarter court prayer to win a regular season game in January. For fans to remember that moment, for it to always bring them goose bumps, it must be truly special.

The first game in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina begged for this type of moment. A building that had seen so much horror, so much heartache and so much devastation needed a moment. The city's football team had been a vagabond in the previous season and in front of a national audience, something special for this city, the state and the region needed to happen.

In steps former WSU defensive back and current New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason. The Atlanta Falcons went four and out on their opening possession and set up to punt. A glaring hole in the middle of the line was suddenly filled by Gleason, streaking towards the punter like a bullet out of a gun and then, Gleason gave New Orleans a moment that would define their franchise.

If your hairs didn't stand on end I don't know what to do with you. Don't believe that this is a franchise defining moment? The team erected a statue of the block outside the stadium. All of the energy in the building seemed to be channeled into Gleason as he stretched his arms out and batted that ball down.

This is a moment many NFL fans and no Saints fan will ever forget. The Saints would go on to lose in the NFC Championship game that year and wouldn't make it back to the playoffs until 2009 when they'd win their first Super Bowl. But I doubt there's a moment any Saints fan remembers more fondly before this one. It's only appropriate that it was Gleason, a man with seemingly limitless energy, who blocked that punt.

When someone is diagnosed with an degenerative illness like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, it's never easy nor is it fair. There is no known cause and there is no cure. The disease causes your body, without getting too scientific, to gradually shut down. Most patients die just over three years after their diagnosis with a very small number surviving longer than that (theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking being the only notable exception). The disease is terrifying not only for the patient but their families who will watch their loved one slowly fight a losing battle with a horrific disease.

After the 2006 season, Steve Gleason retired from the NFL. Just five years later, with so much living left to do, Gleason revealed he'd been diagnosed with ALS. This was beyond unfair. The man whose thunderous punt block still echos throughout the Superdome, whose energy exploded across the country when his fingertips struck that football, was diagnosed with a disease that would, quite literally, take the energy away. No one would've blamed Gleason if he'd chosen to deal with this privately and spend his final years with his family, maybe cross the few remaining things off his bucket list and that would be that.

But not Gleason. Rather than curl up and feel sorry for himself, Gleason took action. Instead of staying out of the public eye, he embraced it. If others diagnosed with ALS needed some courage, Gleason was happy to provide it. He started Team Gleason, a charitable organization for ALS patients to help them continue to live after their diagnosis and began the "No White Flags" campaign. Despite his debilitating disease, Gleason took it as an opportunity to help others.

I think it goes without saying most of us wouldn't be as strong or brave as Gleason. To call his journey anything short of inspiring isn't doing it justice. And before this year's Super Bowl, NBC made sure everyone knew Gleason's incredible story.

If you got through that without the room suddenly getting dusty, well, you're stronger than me.

Since then, Gleason's condition has continued to deteriorate. Last month, Gleason was rushed to the hospital after he was found unresponsive in a suite where he was watching the Monday night game between the Saints and Philadelphia Eagles. We collectively held our breaths, all fearing this would be the end but luckily Gleason was released from the hospital.

And that's the hardest truth about Steve Gleason's diagnosis and disease: one day, sooner rather than later, Steve Gleason will die. As hard as it will be on not just Saints and Cougars fans but football fans everywhere, it will be harder on his family. They will lose a brother, a son, a husband and a father.

But I want Steve's family to know something. He won't go down without putting up an incredible fight and he inspired hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. He became a genuine hero to people, myself included. What Steve is doing with what time he has left on this earth and the legacy he will leave is something that will carry on long after he's gone.

I am proud beyond all measure to call Steve Gleason a Coug. Congratulations to Steve Gleason for being named a finalist for the 2012 Kathi Goertzen Coug of the Year award.

No White Flags.