I am neither the most mobile, nor the strongest guy in the world, but in split-second moments that require agility and power, I can hurdle like Edwin Moses and have a home run trot like Reggie Jackson.
When my 13-year-old son was 13 months-old, we were at some friends house for a children’s birthday party. I saw him at the top of a staircase out of the corner of my eye, while I pretended to listen to the person in front of me. When I saw my sweet boy tumble, I took one step to my right, two strides forward and three Hail Mary’s as I dove stretched out into a sunk-in living room. I caught the back of my son’s head, less than six inches from the ground. I have stunned eyewitnesses who can verify this all these years later. It was THAT memorable
Everyone in the room stopped, like one of those old commercials from E.F. Hutton.
HOLY CRUD! As Tanner from the Bad News Bears would say.
I looked up in shock and said with a grin,
“I played shortstop.”
Everyone started laughing.
Later that night I cried a steady stream of tears, as I imagined the worst. I would have had to watch my kids’ skull exploding as the background music to the inane conversation I was engaged in, with a virtual stranger!
I would have never recovered…
A few months ago I experienced a similar emotional shock, as I imagined my friend Steve-O’s head hitting the pavement, before I caught him.
I met Steve Gleason in March and we connected instantly. We bonded over our appreciation of intelligent discourse, the commonality of our curious minds and our mutual love for the charismatic, Kyle Turley, Gleason’s teammate in New Orleans. I have been documenting both of their lives for film projects.
I have been thinking about Steve Gleason since January when a mutual associate read me a haunting e-mail. In the e-mail the Steve–who blocked a historic punt on the first series back in the SuperDome, post Hurricane Katrina–revealed that although he might not survive, he was looking to fight his recent ALS diagnosis like a Heavyweight Champion.
But on that day he was just devastated.
Two months later–in our first interview–he told me when his diagnosis was confirmed, he lay on top of his wife Michel that night, as she hugged him and they both sobbed themselves to sleep.
Since the day after we met in March, I have been shooting a documentary called “The Steve Gleason Project.” It is a film about a man who is making a 400 hour-plus video library for his unborn child, who will never know him in this form. And it’s possible, his child may not remember him in human form. That depends on how long Steve wants to fight and the satisfaction a human being can experience with a brain locked in a body that not longer will cooperate and cannot move.
So the soon-to-be father does journals, gives advice on an array of topics and talks a lot about his life’s path and personal history. He is giving his children a reference point to his life experience, so they intimately understand the man dispensing the advice.
Steve Gleason was a football player, but he is part of the fabric of New Orleans.
In a recent poll of Saints fans, the two most memorable moments in the franchise’s history were their Super Bowl win…
…and the punt block by Steve Gleason that let a community exhale and party again.
But this man who will never be forgotten, can only remember what it feels like to run.
Last month–seven years after blocking that punt–I asked Steve-O what it feels like to walk and he said thoughtfully, without emotion, “Imagine you have a sleeping bag around your entire body.”
In his January e-mail–read to me the day it was sent out–Gleason wrote about wanting to live to be 109, but he just found out he has ALS. No one with ALS has ever lived to be 109. But Steve Gleason is a man who has consistently crushed the odds. First as an undersized linebacker from Washington State, who played in the Rose Bowl. Then, after being cut by the Colts, he became an 8-year special teams standout, whose career ended, just before the Saints ascended.
But on this night we were in a gas station, just outside of Spokane, Washington. Steve, his unbelievably compatible wife, Michel and his camera skeptical cousin, Brendan, were all in Gleason’s van, nicknamed, “The Iron Horse.” Only the free-spirited Steve Gleason would get this diagnosis and nickname his recently purchased home on wheels, after Lou Gehrig, who died from the same disease, at 39 years-old.
Steve Gleason is 34 years-old and the disease often progresses faster in the young.
I had come on this epic trek toward Alaska to shoot exteriors of Team Gleason driving, for the documentary. I had also come to spend some time with my friends and help out, any way I could. Six weeks earlier I drove a 12-hour stretch, as we left the Bay Area and headed toward the Pacific Northwest. By this time I had been embraced by this amazing New Orleans Italian family (The Varisco’s) and MIchel’s mom, Jill kisses me on the lips when she sees me, with her palms on each of my cheeks. And from this sweet love-emitting lady I’ve met three times, it doesn’t feel weird at all.
Not at all.
I’ve seen up-close, Steve and his father, Mike, go toe to toe about the true spirit of Jesus. And even though I don’t have Mike Gleason’s religious fervor, I am deeply moved by a man who so ardently believes his prayers–in conjunction with his son’s faith–can heal a disease with no known medical cure.
What I’ve seen has often left me in stunned silence, sitting behind a camera like a conflicted voyeur. I’ve been nicknamed, “The Fly,” for being in heavy situations and shooting while blending into the scenery. For the last few hours of our day long-drive toward Washington, Steve and Michel were in bed and held each other in the back of The Horse, as we sped through Portland in the middle of the night.
There was nothing but full-moon, open-road silence.
I wasn’t even working and it was the most poignant moment of my career.
But six weeks later, on this mid-July night we were gassing up and headed toward Canada, on the way to Alaska. I was in my car–on the phone with my baby momma, Tenny–when I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Steve Gleason standing up on the grill. He was cleaning the windshield of The Iron Horse! This vehicle, sleeps two comfortably, three adequately and four, barely. It’s a silver coated, bad motherf***er with big thick tires and a lift kit.
So here’s Steve-O–a day after telling me he has reservations about the six week odyssey with a seven months pregnant wife–and he’s up on a front-bumper–about three feet off the ground?
I got off the phone and out of my car and headed toward The Horse, without alarm. Still, I closed the 50-foot gap in short order. I stood behind him, just to the right. We overlapped slightly, like concentric circles. I noticed that one of his legs began to shake, but he wasn’t going to quit, as he washed and wiped down the entire front window with a determined look on his face.
Michel walked by and slapped him on the butt, “I haven’t seen you do stuff like this lately,” she beamed, “Good job, Steve-O.”
An esteemed doctor had recently speculated he might have another 18 months on his feet and that he shouldn’t be a wallflower. In essence, he should rage against the dying of the light. So here was Steve Gleason, with his leg shaking involuntarily, on the top of the grill and he reaches to finish washing the window…
…and he SLIPS.
As he started to fall he grabbed the grill with his hands, which started to somehow propel his legs down and under, toward the undercarriage of The Horse. If he continued, when his ribs and face hit the front of the grill, he would have released his hands and landed on the back of his skull.
When athletes talk about being “in the zone,” I tune out because it sounds cliche and ordinary. But when they talk about the specifics of how they visualize performance, I’ve always found that intriguing. Standing behind Steve-O, a couple minutes earlier, I imagined what I would do, if he fell. When his first leg slipped, I moved slightly to my left, to get directly behind him. Simultaneously, I threw my arms down and forward, almost like when a male cheerleader catches a female coming off the pyramid, except I was lurching forward and curling my back down at the same time. It was like a martial art, I had no idea I possessed. My arms slung right under his armpits and fit snugly just past the forearm. And with the soundtrack of the Bionic Man, Steve Austin, playing in my head, I held without giving an inch–just locked in.
He never hit the ground.
“Thanks Fly.” Steve-O said matter-of-factly as he tilted his head up and smiled at me like a sweet little kid, who did something he probably shouldn’t have.
In that moment I felt like the prodigal son of Edwin Moses and Reggie Jackson.
(July 2011) (c) Sean Pamphilon
No related posts.
Tagsbehind the scenes Bounty-gate Bountygate DeMaurice Smith Drew Brees football football documentaries Gregg Williams Mike McCreedy New Orleans New Orleans Saints NFL NFLPA Pearl Jam ricky williams Roger Goodell run ricky run Scott Fujita Sean Pamphilon sequel Steve Gleason Team Gleason The United States of Football