New Orleans Saints

Awesome ain’t easy, but Steve Gleason often makes it look that way

Steve Gleason smiles as he communicates with Saints punter Thomas Morstead during his Seventh Annual Inspire Birthday Celebration at Fulton Alley in New Orleans on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018.
Steve Gleason smiles as he communicates with Saints punter Thomas Morstead during his Seventh Annual Inspire Birthday Celebration at Fulton Alley in New Orleans on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Advocate staff photo

Steve Gleason was fashionably late to his annual birthday celebration and benefit on Thursday night.

Well, not really.

He simply wore a T-shirt with the words “Awesome ain’t easy” printed across his chest.

And for Gleason, being awesome really isn’t easy.

But despite battling ALS since 2011, he often makes it look easy, which explains why he made sure to attend his 6-year-old son Rivers’ soccer game before arriving at his event to raise money for the disease he’s lived with for the past seven years.

But if you know Gleason’s story, you know he hasn’t just lived with ALS. He’s actually “lived” with it, not letting it slow him down when it so easily could have.

It’s why so many people from all walks of life attended Thursday’s function.

Yeah, they appreciate the former Saints player for one of the most iconic plays in franchise history, the 2006 blocked punt now memorialized by a “Rebirth” statue outside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

But they were on hand more for what he’s done since taking off the Saints’ uniform, showing people that life indeed goes on.

Nicole Lemelle, just like the guest of honor, arrived Thursday night wearing a Gleason jersey. She also, like the guest of honor, arrived in a wheelchair.

Lemelle was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000.

“He encourages me to be the best I can be,” she said. “Because of him, I know that I can’t let anything stop me, and I can’t make any excuses.”

Lemelle had a card for Gleason on this night that was part birthday celebration and part benefit to raise money for ALS research.

Gleason turns 41 in March, fighting and outlasting a disease that some said would allow him to live only three to five years after he was diagnosed.

The front of Lemelle’s card read “U R Old.”

But once opened, it read “Unique, Respected, Older and Wiser.”

And is Gleason ever unique and respected.

It’s why Saints players like Thomas Morstead, Zach Strief, Coby Fleener and Will Lutz were in attendance, along with coach Sean Payton.

“I was blown away when I got to New Orleans and first heard his story,” Fleener said. “It’s unbelievable how he has managed to turn a really tough thing to something that is inspirational to the whole city of New Orleans. He’s a guy that I know if we had played together, we would have been really close.”

Blaine Bonvillain, 48 of Baton Rouge, wore a Gleason jersey as well.

He received the jersey and tickets to Thursday’s party for Christmas. He had waited for this night to wear the jersey.

“He’s just such an inspiration,” Bonvillain said. “To be a football player, you have to be tough. To deal with what he’s dealing with, you have to be even tougher. His wife and his son are just as strong. The spirit he has is just inspiring. He shows you what true toughness is.”

Gleason showed that toughness again Thursday night, taking part in the “pepper challenge.”

In the challenge, which is much like the ice bucket challenge from a few years back to raise awareness for ALS, a person is supposed to eat a hot pepper.

Gleason, of course, can’t swallow.

So a pepper was ground up and given to him through his feeding tube.

“I challenge you ordinary humans to do the challenge too,” Gleason said, using the same quick wit that he often uses on Twitter.

Gleason was also named as the recipient of the Dave Dixon Award, given by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association to someone who has played a decisive role as a sports leader or administrator benefiting Louisiana and/or bringing credit to the state on the national or international level.

Paul Varisco, Gleason’s father-in-law, isn’t surprised at all Gleason has managed to do.

“Steve is a spirited guy, and he is just a guy who loves life,” Varisco said. “He has a mindset that if challenges come up, he’s going to overcome them. He did it with playing football as a small guy, and he did it with ALS.”

Gleason has much more that he wants to do. One of his goals is to someday make a trip into outer space.

Those closest to him wouldn’t be surprised if that happens too.

“I am always amazed at him because his strength and spirit and determination is incredible,” said Jill Varisco, Gleason’s mother-in-law. “Don’t ever say he can’t do something.”