“It’s an incredible example of polarities,” says the eponymous focus of the documentary Gleason. Steve Gleason is a former defensive back for the New Orleans Saints, famed for blocking a punt that led to a touchdown early in the Saints’ first home game after Hurricane Katrina. There’s a statue outside of the Superdome memorializing this moment. And in Clay Tweel’s doc (mostly filmed by Steve), teammates describe him as “tough” and “aggressive,” unexpectedly so for his small size.
Then, in 2011, Steve was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative muscle condition better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. According to a medical factoid displayed on-screen, late-stage sufferers “can still feel everything, but can no longer move.” (Or, it should be made clear, speak.) Life expectancy is two to five years.
From NFL hero to immobile patient within a decade—that is, indeed, an incredible and tragic polarity.
Within a few weeks of learning he has ALS, Steve and his wife, Michel Varisco-Gleason, also learned that they were having a child. So the about-to-be dad decided to start a video journal in which he talks to his unborn son with the intent to “share with you who I am”—as well as any wisdom regarding growing up and life in general—in case he wouldn’t be around to discuss such matters with his boy. Steve’s outlook after the diagnosis was what you’d expect from a tough baller: “It’s not going to crush my life, even if it does crush my body.”
Gleason, needless to say, is not an easy sit. At times it’s virtually torturous. How can you watch a 34-year-old, formerly optimistic man weaken to the point where he says that living is too much of a struggle and he’s lost hope? Or when the situation gets so rough that his wife, typical of many caretakers, comes to nearly resent her dying husband? At different times, they both become frustrated to the point of anger. “I’ve never been a saint,” Michel says. And Steve admits that he sometimes feels irritated even when their son, Rivers, just crawls around.
Turns out the kid is the thing. Seeing Rivers grow from an infant to a toddler is joyous. He’s not only adorable: He’s perfectly happy with his daddy. Regardless of the situation’s gloom, Michel’s exhaustion, and Steve’s cantankerousness, watching the sweet boy laugh as his father takes him on rides in his wheelchair brings a smile to everyone’s faces—and gives Steve incentive to keep fighting.
The movie—or, rather, Steve himself—makes the issue of father/son relationships multigenerational. His father, Mike, was strict and demanding when Steve was growing up. Even here, he tries to impose upon his son his religious beliefs, taking him to a “faith healing” ceremony. (“This is bullshit,” Michel says.) Steve interviews his dad about fatherhood and what he would change if he could go back. It’s a means of giving Steve ideas for his video journal, but it also helps bring them closer, bridging the gap left from what sounds like a cold upbringing.
Minor spoiler alert, but Steve is still alive. He’s bucked his urge to relieve his family of their burden, instead opting for expensive surgery that may extend his life. Early in the film, Steve tells a friend how “fucked up” it is that he may not be able to have a conversation with Rivers by the time the boy is capable of holding one. But technology and drive may make that possible—perhaps even rendering this documentary’s primary purpose obsolete.
Gleason is now playing at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row.