Article: Telling the Steve Gleason story
I've been tracking Gleason, the former Saints special-teams ace, diagnosed with ALS last January, for a story that will run on NBC's Super Bowl pregame show Sunday. My last trip to New Orleans was Wednesday. It's been a memorable few visits with Gleason and his wife, Michel, and their son, Rivers, particularly seeing how noble and human Gleason is handling the ultimate punch in the gut: how every muscle in his body is slowly but surely breaking down and failing him.
I won't tell the story here; it'll run later in the pregame show. But when I started reporting it in the fall, Gleason, 34, was insistent that it not be a sob story about an athlete whose athleticism is being robbed. "I don't feel sorry for myself, and I don't want anyone else to,'' he told me in November. "All I want is to be able to help some ALS patients, show them they don't have to give up when they're diagnosed.''
I agreed. I said we at NBC would tell his complete story, with an eye on what he hopes to accomplish for ALS patients. Which I think we've done. You can judge when you see the story Sunday.
But something happened on the way to doing the story. Michel, his wife, is tremendously real and emotional. Steve is valiant and well-spoken. ALS is eating away at Gleason's legs and torso; he is now using a walker. It's impossible to experience the Gleason story and not be touched, and not get choked up. Impossible, unless you're a totally unfeeling person. And so last week, when I was in New Orleans, I spoke with Steve and Michel about the story. I didn't want to blindside them, because there is some sadness and some inspiration and a few tears in the piece. "It has to be this way,'' I told them. "You can't tell this story antiseptically, or any ALS patient and family members who watch it will say, 'That's not real. That's a bunch of BS. That's not my life.' '' They agreed. I didn't tell them that to seek their approval. I told them because this is the way it had to be to be real.
I am a TV story neophyte. The heavy lifting here was done by producer Phil Parrish and his dogged production assistant, Paige Westin. I think we've all gained respect for what ALS patients go through every day to live lives something close to normal and dignified. The thing I have appreciated most is seeing the feeling and the love Michel's family, the Variscos, have for Steve, this newest member of the family from the Pacific Northwest. The other day, Michel drove me to the vacant lot catty-corner from the Varisco home, where Michel's grandfather lived until flooding from Hurricane Katrina ruined his home. Now Michel and Steve have the blueprints for a home there, and they hope to build it and be in it by late this year.
"It's cool,'' Michel said. "It's like recycling. It's going to be great to have my family so close by, because let's face it, I'll need them.''
With a baby, and with a husband who needs more care as each day passes, she'll need the help.
"This family is my support system,'' said Gleason. "The support system is my force shield. It's harder for the desperation, the anxiety, the depression, to creep in.''
Hope you enjoy the story. I'll tweet a little more about it as we get closer to Sunday.
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