NEW ORLEANS -- Steve Gleason might always be remembered most for his blocked punt on the night the Louisiana Superdome reopened for the first time after Hurricane Katrina -- a play that stirred an already emotional crowd into a deafening, drink-spilling frenzy.
The retired New Orleans Saints folk hero only hopes he can continue to lift people's spirits by the way he handles what until now has been a private struggle with ALS, a debilitating and ultimately fatal disease for which there currently is no cure.
On Sunday, five years to the day after his memorable play became a symbol of a devastated community's will to carry on, Gleason, 34, went public with his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"In a way, I see this as an opportunity to continue to be an inspiration, maybe even more so than I ever have been," said Gleason, a 5-foot-11, former Washington State standout who forged an eight-year NFL career in New Orleans as a special teams leader and reserve safety.
Now the native of Spokane, Wash., who settled in New Orleans after retiring in 2008, is setting up an organization called Team Gleason. Its mission is to improve the lives of those who have ALS, the symptoms of which include gradual paralysis.
"You have to continue to do things you love," Gleason said. "There's technology available that, if I'm proactive, I can continue to do some of those things. You have to engage in passionate, remarkable human relationships, which has always been important to me."
Most people live three to five years with ALS after diagnosis, though some have lived longer and research on treatments continues.
Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who played in New Orleans from 2006-09, remains friends with Gleason. Fujita has been both saddened by Gleason's condition and uplifted by his enduring sense of humor and zest for life.
"He even said to some of us on the phone that he views this as an exciting challenge and opportunity," Fujita said. "Steve's one of the few people I think in this situation who could say something like that and actually mean it."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press