Sports and Entertainment
A Life In Film: "Gleason" Shows The Power of Legacy and Philanthropy
White lights illuminated the Louisiana Superdome, with spectators bleeding black and gold as they watched their New Orleans Saints take on the Atlanta Falcons. It was 2006, and the field hadn't seen a game since Hurricane Katrina devastated the stadium and the city around it a year earlier. Despite extensive stadium repairs, nerves still clung to every wall.
The game was scoreless in the first quarter as the Falcons punted. Saints safety Steve Gleason lunged in to pull off a nearly impossible feat: He blocked the punt, which was recovered by the Saints in the end zone for their first touchdown since Katrina. That heroic block brought a sense of togetherness to a place that had seemingly fallen apart.
It was the first of many actions that would make him a modern-day hero on and off the football field. Now his story is the subject of Gleason, a documentary that premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival. Chase Sapphire was a sponsor of a private screening party for the film during the festival.
Gleason's unadulterated love of New Orleans stretches far beyond the Saints. The native of Spokane, Washington, was swept up by the stacked buildings of the French Quarter lined with cast-iron balconies, soulful home cooking and music halls that played on late into the night. In this love affair with the city, Gleason sparked a love of his own. In 2008, Gleason wed Michel Varisco in a marriage founded on strength and adventure. They would travel the world together, but they'd always come back home.
"New Orleans is so important to us because of my family and our friends," Varisco says. "My family [is a source of] strength and support, and that's what New Orleans is for us. It's family."
As the Gleasons immersed themselves in that larger city family, they decided to start one of their own. In a span of months, the couple's lives were forever transformed. Varisco was pregnant, and Gleason had been diagnosed with ALS, a terminal illness that would increasingly halt his neural functioning. Gleason was given two to four years to live. It was his personal Katrina, and the walls were falling down on the man he wanted to become, and the life he wanted for his family.
Gleason's fellow Saints player and close friend, Scott Fujita, was among the first of the inner-circle to receive the news. Even in the face of tragedy, Gleason remained spirited, clinging to the very hope he'd sparked in so many others.
"We called our good friend and former teammate Eric Johnson in Los Angeles," Fujita recalls. "He jumped in the car, drove overnight to pick me up. We went to Steve in San Francisco where he received the diagnosis, and we did a hike at five in the morning up to Twin Peaks. It was one of those beautiful moments [as the] sun was rising. I looked right at him and said, "Brother, I’ll carry you to the ends of the earth, if that’s what it takes." And that was the beginning of his journey, not knowing what the hell the journey was going to look like."
A Lens on Legacy
One of the early steps in Gleason's journey was finding a way to stay active in his son's life as his functionality diminished rapidly. Gleason decided to create a series of videos for his son, Rivers, to let him in on his dreams, his advice and the moments they'd never share together. Though it was often a challenge to live life under the lens in such a trying time, Varisco offered her full support.
"Turning the camera on ourselves was never my idea," she admits. "It was Steve's idea that I went along with, because I think it's a great idea. We didn't know how long he was going to be here. He wanted to share so much of himself with his son. I think it's beautiful."
The video became more than just a family project. It inspired Gleason to continue his efforts to ignite hope in those who needed it most. With the help of Michel's father, Paul Varisco, Gleason founded the philanthropic organization Team Gleason in 2011 to help other ALS sufferers continue to enjoy their time despite the fatal diagnosis.
"We sent people on adventures to show that they could still live life and not just sit home," Paul Varisco says. "We documented those and we blogged and made people aware. [We also] provided them with needed services and equipment and technology. [ALS patients] lose their voice ... so we sent devices out to them so they could communicate with their loved ones. It changed their lives."
Gleason played his own life by the same rules he preached, a life dictated by love and adventure. He continued to travel the world, jumped out of a plane and even had Fujita carry him to the top of Machu Picchu in Peru. Gleason spent each new day exploring fatherhood with young Rivers and falling more in love with his wife as she stepped up to take on every challenge that presented itself.
Turning Family Movies into Film
Watching Gleason motivate the ALS community peaked a desire in his closest friends to share the footage he made for Rivers with a larger audience. Producer Seth Gordon and Director Clay Tweel were brought on board to shape more than 1,300 hours of intimate footage into a documentary.
Gleason and Varisco's close friend Kimi Culp, a multimedia company founder, signed on as producer.
"Steve and Michel are some of my best friends," Culp says. "Michel was in my wedding, I was in theirs. When Steve was diagnosed, he began filming himself – filming journals for his son. And two young aspiring filmmakers moved in and created a body of work that was two years of this incredibly compelling footage. At that point, I realized I had the skill set needed to tell stories, and I wanted to help them make this into a film."
Though there are many shades to Gleason's story, to his wife, at the heart of it all is the power of love.
"I think it's so important that people know about ALS and how it affects people and what they have to live with," she offers. "But secondly, and probably more importantly is that they should take away that this is a love story – a love story of two individuals, a son, but a love story from a family that adopted Steve, a love story from a family from the Northwest, the city of New Orleans and now the nation."
Premiering in Park City was a surreal experience for the Gleasons. Their success was celebrated at an opening night premiere party hosted by Chase.
"It's something to share our experience with all the people that we love," Varisco says.
Gleason and his inner team had gathered together as a family to see his story shared at the Sundance Film Festival. The audience watched as the former player pushed beyond his setbacks. At the end of it all, the crowd cheered for Gleason, once again.
Valentina I. Valentini is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles. She has contributed to VanityFair.com, Vulture.com, LA Magazine, Boston Magazine, Variety and many more.