WASHINGTON — Former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason is a step closer to wearing the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress, after the U.S. Senate unanimously endorsed the award Thursday.
Gleason, 41, became a beloved fan favorite in New Orleans after his blocked punt against the Atlanta Falcons in 2006 spurred the team to victory in its first game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.
But lawmakers from Louisiana and Gleason's native Washington are also recognizing the advocacy work the former football star has done for people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Gleason was diagnosed with the disease in 2011 and has since devoted much of his life to pushing for better — and more widely available — technology to improve the lives of ALS patients.
Undrafted out of college, Gleason played largely on special teams for the Indianapolis Colts and the Saints. His iconic blocked punt made him a hero among Saints fans and he settled in Louisiana after his playing days ended.
His philanthropic and advocacy work since being diagnosed with ALS — work which has shaped new technologies and altered federally policies — has made him a national figure.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, noted that Gleason worked with developers at Microsoft to build devices that track eye movements, allowing those without use of their limbs to communicate and move.
Gleason, who's used such a device to continue his advocacy work, also helped push the Gleason Act through Congress earlier this year. The law sets aside money to pay for the devices for ALS patients.
His Team Gleason Foundation has devoted its work to showing "that patients can not only live but thrive after this diagnosis." His experience since being diagnosed with ALS was chronicled in the 2016 film "Gleason."
His foundation also established the Team Gleason House for Innovative Living, a home designed to help patients live fulfilling, more independent lives.
Gleason "is an example of what makes our country great," Cassidy said on the floor of the U.S. Senate Thursday, just before the resolution was approved. "He has given hope to many, he gives hope to all those who have ever received a devastating diagnosis and his message is simple. Your life still has meaning, your best years can still be ahead of you."
Louisiana Republican Sens. Cassidy and John Kennedy joined Washington state Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to sponsor the legislation. Gleason grew up in Spokane, Washington, and starred in both football and baseball at Washington State University from 1995 to 2000.
The senators were able to gather the signatures of more than 70 senators on a petition to award Gleason the Congressional Gold Medal. The bill now moves to the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote.
"Few people make Washington state as proud as Steve Gleason," Murray said Thursday, "and I am delighted to sponsor this legislation to award Steve the Congressional Gold Medal."
"Aside from his outstanding contribution on the field with the Saints, his philanthropic work for ALS has truly distinguished him," Kennedy said. "Since his diagnosis with ALS, he has dedicated countless hours raising awareness for the disease."
"Congratulations, Steve!" Kennedy added.