Don’t make the mistake of casually dismissing this as a run-of-the-mill sports documentary. “Gleason” is an incredibly touching, honest, and raw look at how the lives of a former NFL star and his devoted wife are impacted when he is stricken with ALS.
As a NFL player, Steve Gleason is perhaps best known for his iconic blocked punt during the first game played at the New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. The entire city, if not the nation, immortalized it as a sign of rebirth for the city. As a man, Steve has always been known for his free-spirit, sense of humor, and intense ambition. In 2008, the same year he retired from the NFL, Steve married Michel Varisco, a woman that matched and complimented his unique personality.
The documentary, a combination of home movies, video blog excerpts, and professionally filmed footage, grabs hold of you in the early moments, as it quickly becomes apparent that these two unique souls were meant for one another. It’s evident that their love is true, real, and strong. Early in 2011, Steve begins feeling something is off with his body and is soon diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This degenerative disease carries with it a life expectancy of 2 to 5 years. Six weeks later, they learn that Michel is pregnant with their first child.
True to his nature, Steve immediately begins two courses of action. First is to make the most of the time he has left, living each day to its absolute fullest and making sure all of his relationships are in order. Second, perhaps inspired by the 1993 Michael Keaton film “My Life,” he begins recording an ongoing video blog for his unborn child. These video clips range from fun and silliness to insightful thoughts on what it means to be a man, father, husband, and son.
ALS is a cruel degenerative neurological disease that kills off a person’s ability to control their muscles. First walking and basic motor skills become diminished and then disappear completely. The ability to talk and care for oneself completely fades over time. Meanwhile the rest of the mind, the ability to think and other higher cognitive processes remain untouched. Individuals stricken with this disease literally become prisoners within their own bodies. There is no cure, and although treatments exist, they are rarely effective.
To be aware of ALS is one thing, but to witness how quickly it can ravage a strong body and the effect it has on Steve & Michel via these private glimpses into their lives, is another thing entirely. But this story, while tragic, is just as uplifting and inspiring as it is heartbreaking. For every dark or frustrating moment we see, there are equally powerful uplifting moments, sometimes overlapping one another. The love and support that Michel and their friends provide to Steve is truly inspiring, as is his ability to crack the funniest quips at the most “inappropriate” moments. Once Steve’s son is born, a strong father/son theme builds throughout the remainder of the film which touches feelings, insecurities, and frustrations every man wrestles with.
“Gleason” is an amazing film on a number of levels, one that should not be missed. It doesn’t matter if you are a sports fan or not, this movie is about core human emotions and struggles. It’s virtually impossible to not shed tears during it, but these tears being an equal mix of sadness, empathy, and joy, makes “Gleason” one of the most emotionally impactful films in years.
Please visit www.TeamGleason.org to learn more about the foundation Steve created to help others suffering from ALS.