Heard on the Hill

Former NFL player Steve Gleason joins ranks of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II

Former Saints player to be awarded Congressional Gold Medal for ALS work

Former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason and his wife, Michel Varisco Gleason, roll in the Krewe of Orpheus parade in New Orleans in March 2019. (Erika Goldring/Getty Images file photo)

A week from Wednesday, congressional leaders will gather on Capitol Hill to award the next recipient of the highest honor that Congress can grant a civilian.

Fewer than 200 people have received the Congressional Gold Medal, and former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason will be the first NFL player to make the cut on a list that includes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.

Gleason, well known for blocking a punt against the Atlanta Falcons in the Saints’ first home game in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, has made a notable impact for individuals with ALS since being diagnosed with the neuromuscular disease in 2011.

His efforts to champion accessibility to important speech-generating devices and technologies have grasped the attention and support of not only his own community but also of Congress.

“Steve Gleason was a hero for Saints fans and now he is a hero for all Americans as he finds hope and meaning in overcoming disability and creating greater opportunity for others who are disabled,” Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy said in a 2018 statement when the bipartisan legislation to honor the athlete was introduced.

Cassidy worked closely with Gleason’s organization, Team Gleason, to shepherd the bill through Congress, according to a release. The senator’s efforts to get the votes to pass the bill in the House and Senate as the clock was winding down ahead of the 2018 government shutdown were highlighted in a video produced by the NFL Network.

Gleason’s personalized gold medal features him wearing a Saints jersey, along with images from his native state of Washington.

The bill received support from Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington. The bicameral bill’s co-sponsors include Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Steve Scalise and Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana.

“[Gleason] has chosen to fight back against ALS, and to undergo this very personal battle in the public eye to bring awareness to this disease and the people who it impacts on a daily basis,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi will host the Jan. 15 ceremony at 3 p.m. in Statuary Hall.

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