by Jamie Garwood
A glowing documentary that follows the post-NFL career of New Orleans Saints specials teams player, Steve Gleason, who shortly after retirement is diagnosed with ALS – Amyotrophic Lateral Sceloris or Lou Gehrig’s Disease – and how his once physical body quickly detoriates and a sound literal mind slowly vanishes over a year.
The director Clay Tweel is lucky in respect that an unsung player such as Gleason becomes this incredible walking and talking document about the human spirit and how we can overcome. Tweel is the director and editor of the film, yet the narrator and producer of the content is Gleason himself; a sportsman who does not suffer from vanity or brand awareness, Gleason documented much of his life by means of videotaping or camera phone from his teenage years to college days to archiving his off-season trips overseas when experiencing adventure holidays.
This zest for life continues for Gleason in his retirement and led to him meeting his rock, Michel, a free spirit too who becomes his wife and mother to their son, Rivers. Their relationship is one of enlightenment and joy, and then Steve starts feeling pains in his arms and chest.
After the diagnosis, Michel becomes pregnant and they go on a two month road trip to Alaska, on this trip Steve’s body starts diminishing which hurts Michel yet Steve is eager to not have it stop him experiencing life to the full. Steve starts a video blog for his unborn child – teaching him about relationships and family, and also a video diary of his day-to-day realisation that he is slowly going more inward as the condition takes hold.
What set Steve Gleason apart from other NFL players was his determination and drive to achieve, Gleason played linebacker at college for Washington State, however, he was considered too small for the position in the professional game yet his speed and desire to win led him to be drafted by the New Orleans Saints who utilised him as a special teams gunner, a player who specifically attacks the punter when he kicks the ball away to attempt a turnover or block to regain possession for the offence.
In the annals of the Saints franchise, Gleason has a play for which he is synonymous – the blocked punt of the Atlanta Falcons’ punter in the first few minutes of the first game back at the New Orleans Superdome following the horror of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The game was September 25th 2006, and Gleason’s play became christened ‘The Rebirth’ and helped galvanised a city and fanbase that desperately needed something to cheer about. Much is made about the way Gleason played, with a hunger and a controlled anger, coming from a broken home his Dad alludes to the fact that the field of play allowed Steve to be cathartic and let out his anger.
Gleason’s Dad also says maybe the illness stems from the way Steve played – so hard, so fast – yet ALS is apparent in adults not on the physical level of Gleason and there is no discussion on the CTE discussion so prevalent in the NFL currently.
Nonetheless, the film is a moving document on the treatment of ALS and the fight Gleason shows is paramount to him overcoming his illness as best he can becoming more of an inspiration in retirement than he did when playing – his foundation Team Gleason raises money to help similar ALS sufferers to go on trips with family and he went to Congress to pass the Gleason Act meaning the technology to help ALS sufferers talk via computers be available on Medicare; a legacy perhaps far more reaching than a blocked punt. The punt was a second was a moment; the Act will live on and help far more people.
The film takes time to show the tragedy of the illness on the Gleason family, how Michel has to cope with a newborn child and an ill husband; the living grief she suffers as a chasm slowly comes between their loving relationship yet she is able to grow as an artist and be extrovert in that respect whilst supporting Steve.
There is also a telling sub-text on the dichotomy and difficulty of father-son relationships; how Steve’s with his own father has altered over time due a difference of opinion on faith and religion, yet they have slowly grown closely together due to the illness. This is juxtaposed with the closeness Steve – who will be unable to touch and talk to his new son – and how he endeavours to create a vital relationship by way of his video diary and creating a bond by any means. Gleason due to his intellect also becomes an insightful interviewer such as the moment he asks Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam, Gleason’s favourite band and huge supporters of his cause) about his own absent father bringing the rock and roll star to tears himself.
A complex subject is given a touching and emotional documentary which at times will have you tearing up, yet Gleason remains an uplifting film about the overcoming of obstacles in your life, how only you yourself can create the legacy you want to leave behind and how debilitating illness does not necessary mean the end of the road. This is as much a film about patience and how it pays off if you have it.
Gleason is released in cinemas on Friday 17th March