Former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason, an ALS patient and activist, was awarded the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal at the US Capitol Wednesday for his work leading efforts to fight the illness.
Gleason accepted the medal, which is the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress, in a ceremony attended by congressional leaders and his former teammate, quarterback Drew Brees.
“This award from the elected officials who represent the people of the United States of America is a sublime honor for me,” Gleason, who was diagnosed with the debilitating degenerative disease in 2011, said using a speech generation device.
“But I feel more importantly … that this honor represents some joy and encouragement, and even drive for the tens of thousands of extraordinary families enduring life with ALS.”
On the field, the former NFL player was perhaps best known for blocking a punt in the opening minutes of the Saints first game back in their renovated stadium following the destruction of Hurricane Sandy.
His activism with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, began after he retired and founded Team Gleason Foundation, non-profit that helps provide services for people living with the disease.
He also lobbied for the passage of the Steve Gleason Act, which expanded Medicare benefits to include speech generation devices for patients suffering from diseases like ALS.
“Only 163 people have ever received this honor, George Washington, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and now, Steve Gleason,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said at the ceremony.
“But instead of cursing the darkness, Steve chose to light a candle. He chose to inspire and help others who are braving ALS just like he is.”
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees praised Gleason’s perseverance.
“For the 13 years I’ve known Steve, if i were to sum up his attitude, his tenacity, his matra — it would be it’s not a matter of if we will l accomplish the goal, it’s only when,” Brees said.
“There is no person on earth with the strength, courage, passion and tenacity, to overcome all obstacles and make the lasting impact that Steve has made,” he added.
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