MY LETTER TO SUPERMAN - STEVE GLEASON
I have to make a confession. I've put off watching your award winning film Gleason for months. When I learned you were diagnosed with ALS, I was shocked and cried. I can't image what you and your family must have felt, but the news hit me hard...
Almost as hard as the time you blind sided me during Blitz Pick Up my freshman year. You probably don't remember this, but I was lined up in the left slot. You were playing weak side linebacker on the far hash. I had the hot route over the middle and just after Birny threw me the ball and it hit my hands, you ear holed me and absolutely blew me up. I was five feet horizontal in the air because you hit me so hard. I somehow miraculously still held onto the ball and popped back up real quick to show that I was tough. No one seemed to care that this was a noncontact drill—maybe because I was a true freshman and you were a fifth year senior.
Either way, I learned first hand what the term meant to get your “bell rung.” My left ear was ringing for like two hours after that play.
That hit obviously was nowhere near as hard as the adversities that you and your family face everyday. As you say, “Awesome ain't easy,” I haven't been an awesome teammate. I've put off watching your honest and courageous journey that you documented in your movie for too long.
You see, you were like Superman to me—you still are, probably more so—and I cowardly didn't have the courage to witness your transformation...until last night. I balled my eyes out the entire film. I even went up to each of my three children while they were sleeping and put my hands on them, while I was sobbing.
Like I did after you blindsided me, you keep getting back up every single day. You've refreshed my lens on life, like you undoubtedly have with millions of others.
I'm writing this right now because I can't sleep. You and Michel’s bravery is both heroic and haunting.
I have to get a few things off my chest and share my feelings with you.
You probably haven't thought about me for a long time, but you've been on my mind for the past six years. The last time I saw you was late November 2011—just 10 months after your diagnosis with ALS. I heard you were going to be honored in Pullman that weekend to raise the flag as an honorary captain.
There was an event for you at the Palouse Ridge Golf Course that Saturday, and I knew I had to see you. I've never told you this Steve, but I've always looked up to you. While I was a naive, wide-eyed, and insecure freshman, you were the confident big man on campus and senior captain. But, what I've always loved about you is you’ve never acted like the big man on campus. You have always been so kind, full of energy, and open to talk to anyone—even me.
Though you made me sing the Cougar fight song in front of the entire team at the Cougar Fitness Buffet during fall camp, I didn't hold it against you. You made up for it when you came back to train with us in Pullman after your first year in the NFL as an undrafted free agent. You were learning to play safety and I was a slot receiver. We had some good battles that summer. You gave many awesome insights about what it's like to be a professional to not only to me, but many other Cougar players who looked up to you as well.
So back to your Cougar event in 2011, I remember seeing you walk through the venue door. You had a cane and something else unexpected. When I saw you I remember thinking, “Holy shit, Steve’s got a legit mustache.” It was No Shave November. You've always had the perfect combination of empathy, intensity, and a sense of humor.
Maybe it was fate or luck, but because I was standing closest to the door, I was the first person to hug you. After not seeing you for many years it touched me when you said, “Come in for the real thing.” We hugged and I felt so much love from you and everyone in that room. I've always felt some strange connection to you. Maybe it was because I felt we had a lot in common.
- You went to Gonzaga Prep during the same time as my cousins Sarah and Peter Hession
We both were somewhat undersized as football players who didn't have that typical build or personality
Both of our fathers loved us but in an intense driven way
We both were two sport athletes who played football and baseball
I remember several conversations we had about how you juggled both sports. These mini-mentor sessions really helped my mindset and confidence that if you could do it, I could do it too.
I'll never forget the speech you gave to the team during early August two-a-days though. It was a hot summer Palouse evening and we were up in the Martin Stadium bleachers. Each week, one of the captains addressed the team with a speech. I can't remember Torry or Nian’s topic (I do remember Nian referencing that he was wearing a “young ass T-shirt” though. Being from Puyallup, I had no idea what that meant). I've never forgotten your message. The topic of your talk was to DREAM BIG.
This mantra has carried you through your entire life. Watching from afar, you have lived this creed to its fullest: as an athlete, husband, father, son, friend, trailblazer, ALS advocate, filmmaker, role model and a true inspiration.
Your Monday Night Football blocked punt may have been the symbol of rebirth to so many in New Orleans, but your will, grit, vulnerability, and vision living through ALS has given a rebirth to the masses. You can add my name to that list.
I’ve learned from you a couple valuable lessons that deal with maybe the two most powerful emotions a person can feel and possess: courage and love. Both emotions are different in their own right, but they share one common bond: fear. You can't experience either courage or love without fear being present—but the only way to beat fear is with a brave spirit and a faithful heart.
Thank you for teaching me and others to fight through the fear and to dream big. Thank you for modeling raw vulnerability. Thank you for putting your family first (your wife Michel is one serious bad ass—we also share that in common—we married up). And thank you for never giving up.
As I write this, the date is ironically 7/3...the opposite of your Saint’s number 37. Even though your life has played out the opposite of what you’ve envisioned, just know that your legacy in this world and impact on the development of ALS technology is making a larger imprint than you could have ever done as a player.
I see you now more powerful than Superman. You are like Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars when he faced Darth Vader in that epic final battle where he said, “Strike me down, and I'll be more powerful than you can ever image.”
By sitting down in a chair Steve, you are helping me and others stand up—in relationships, life, and love.
You've inspired a new mantra for me. I want to live my life thirty-four-seven (347): your combined numbers as a Coug and Saint. Meaning, I want to maximize each day with compassion, courage, perspective, and passion, just like you. I'm going to live 347...twenty-four-seven (247).
All the best to Michel and Rivers. Tell your mom I said hello...she is one of the nicest people I've ever met, and I love seeing her when I go back to Pullman.
Have fun at Gleason Fest this year on August 12 in Spokane (event link here). I want to help reach our goal of raising $10K for the event (give here). We are expecting our fourth child on July 31, so I don't think I'll be able to make this one. I'm going to donate to Team Gleason though (give to Team Gleason here), and have my company match. I'll encourage others to do the same. I know the event is in good hands with Rian and “Shady” Grady.
Congrats on your beautiful film Gleason. It is a must see for everyone.
Until next time I see you Steve...just know that I love you and make sure that your head is on a swivel...I just might return the favor and blindside you with an ear hole shot of my own—I don't care if you're in a wheelchair.
Either way, as always: Go Cougs and No White Flags.
Sincerely Your Friend and Teammate,
PS: Below are some pictures I took with an old school disposable camera from our one year together as teammates. What a blast from the past!
Collin Henderson is the founder of Project Rise, which is a platform to help inspire and give individuals and teams the tools to master their mindset and be the best version of themselves.