In the game of football months, sometimes years of training go into preparing for the seconds that occur after the ball is snapped. Although the tactics, strategies and plays can be very complicated, at its core, football is a simple game. Plays are called on both offense and defense, players execute their assignments and react to what their opponent brings to them. The team that responds better, with most determination to what the game brings, wins.
Steve Gleason was an eight-year NFL veteran with the New Orleans Saints. The biggest play in his career was when he blocked a punt that resulted in a touchdown on the fourth play of the first, post-Katrina game the Saints played in the Superdome. It is called the most important play in the history of the Saints as it led to them winning the game and was a symbolic turnaround for the entire region. As big and significant as this play was in his career, the biggest play in Steve’s life began with the snap that was a diagnosis of ALS, the disease named after another athlete stricken in the prime of his life, Lou Gehrig. As with most other ALS patients, doctors gave Steve between 2-5 years to live. As the disease progressed, he would lose the ability to move, speak, and without assistance from a ventilator, breathe.
Steve was diagnosed at the age of 34, two years following his retirement from football. Within 6 weeks of his diagnosis, Steve and his wife Michel discovered that they were expecting their first child. Still in the midst of coming to terms with his life-changing condition, Steve decided to live life to the fullest of his abilities even as he began to lose those skills. Additionally, Steve and Michel decided to document this time in life by creating a living video journal of his life so that his child would be able to know him, to see him move and hear his voice after he had lost those abilities.
Written and directed by Clay Tweel, Gleason is the story of Steve, Michel Varisco Gleason, son Rivers Gleason, and the rest of his family and friends as they all journey through life impacted by ALS. As one can imagine there are times of great grief and loss as Steve’s physical condition diminishes through the film. As difficult as at times it is to watch the story on the screen, one can only imagine the emotional, physical, and spiritual pain experienced in life by Steve and those close to him.
In addition to the hundreds of hours of video being a gift of Steve and Michel to Rivers, the film is a gift to all who watch it. Although grief is present like an uncredited character throughout the entire film, joy is also present. While the grief brings a silent weight to the viewer, there is also a joy that sounds a greater hope that lightens the weight of grief even in the midst of the loss of bodily function that is continuously revealed throughout the film.
Part of the gift element is the film’s raw honesty of living life with ALS that Steve and Michel share. While not dwelling excessively on valley periods, the film does not shy away from the physical, emotional and relational low moments. The nuts and bolts reality of ALS’s physical deterioration, the accompanying medical issues, and the difficult conversations, and non-conversations that come with the hour by hour, day by day exhaustion of caring for a loved one, or being cared for by a loved one are included in this journal of life.
The other gift element of course is the “no white flags,” never give up spirit of Steve and Michel. There is joy in seeing their joy in living their lives. While theirs is not the life they thought they would live when they married, Steve and Michel do not surrender living life to ALS. Rather than focusing on Steve’s limitations, on what ALS has taken, they focus on the lives they can have. As such they travel, they go, and they do as much as they can rather than sitting, grieving and waiting. They live out the challenge presented on the film’s poster. Steve and Michel “live with a purpose, “and they “love with a purpose.”
This spirit is a product of the faith that Steve and Michel not only have, but direct their lives. As with anyone struggling to overcome a life changing and challenging illness, the Gleason’s is a realized faith life. Of course, there are ups and downs and times of questioning, but those are but dips of faith, not pits of despair. Steve and Michel and all in their orbit know that there is something greater than Steve’s diagnosis and mortality. This reality and opportunity to live lives of realized faith is possible for all people. For Steve, it is just more evident.
While there are many Biblical passages lived out by Steve, Michel, and Rivers, some readily come to mind. In the fourth chapter in his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul tells the church to rejoice in Lord always, not to worry, and to make prayers known to God. In the sixth chapter of Matthew Jesus also teaches not to worry. One is not to worry about what one will eat, wear, or about one’s body or about tomorrow. And, in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews faith is presented as the substance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen. While prayers, and a painfully documented trip to a faith healer, are not answered by a reversal of his condition, Steve and Michel do have faith in God to deliver hope. And God does. While viewers experience grief throughout the film, hope and joy are more abounding and realized.
In Hebrews 11 the writer also presents a roll call of Israel’s heroes of faith, including, Noah, Joseph, Moses, and Abraham, all of whom live as residents in an alien land. They live in, or as in, tents while hoping assuredly that one day they will live in homes and a nation whose foundations are designed and constructed by God. None of the heroes made it into the promised land, but they died seeing it. The writer of Hebrews was not ultimately referring to a nation or homes of this world, but to the coming Kingdom of God. Through Christ, those heroes of Israel, and all who have such faith, find and receive one’s final and true home.
As Steve Gleason’s body is as inadequate and challenging as the tents the heroes of Israel lived in, he, and us like them, can see through faith that assured land of promise. Steve and Michel and others whose spirit overpowers human frailty and brokenness are examples of faith that sees, experiences, and lives lives of assured hope.
Gleason is rated “R” for Language.