By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
Scott Fujita has told the story many times, especially as he tours the country talking about the documentary, Gleason, but he still chuckles when recalling the first time he met his friend, Steve Gleason. It was 2006 and Fujita, a linebacker, had just been signed by the New Orleans Saints. He was in the weight room with some of his new teammates, players he fondly refers to as fellow “meatheads.” He looked across the room and saw another player going through yoga poses. Fujita inquired about the yogi in training. “Oh, that’s Steve Gleason,” he was told. “He sort of marches to the beat of his own drummer.”
As it turned out, the two weren’t so different. “I’m a Berkeley guy so that’s in me,” Fujita said. “I always wanted to do everything right because I was a college walk-on so I had that fear of it always being my last play. But off the playing field I had an off-the-beaten path to me too.”
In short order a friendship was born. Gleason was a defensive back and standout special teamer who had originally been signed as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Washington State by the Indianapolis Colts in 2000, but was cut and then signed with the Saints that same year. Gleason and his then girlfriend (now wife,) Michel, soon took Fujita and his wife under their wing and introduced the couple to everything the city of New Orleans, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, had to offer, including its famous music scene.
Gleason’s giving nature was known to all who crossed his path. Fujita considers Gleason one of his best friends, but acknowledged with a laugh that, “There are probably 50 to 100 people who consider Steve their best friend too.”
Then in 2011 things took a somber turn when Gleason called Fujita to tell him he had been diagnosed with ALS. While a shock, it wasn’t a complete surprise to Fujita. Back in October 2010, Gleason had told his friend that he had been experiencing some strange muscle twitches and spasms. In that moment, Fujita had a bad feeling – they were the same initial symptoms his uncle had experienced years earlier –who had ultimately died from the disease.
ALS remains incurable, but Gleason confronted his diagnosis head on with his friend Fujita by his side.
Within days of the diagnosis, Gleason, Fujita and another close friend Eric Johnson (a former tight end for the Saints and San Francisco 49ers) took a sunrise hike up San Francisco’s Twin Peaks.
“It was kind of a way to take a deep breath, take it all in,” Fujita recalled. “We have no idea what this journey is going to be, but we’ll figure it out together.”
That hike was followed just a few years later by another that wasn’t quite as peaceful. Gleason, always a world traveler, wanted to go to Machu Picchu in Peru. Although Gleason was now confined to a wheel chair, Fujita set about arranging the trip.
Adding to the challenge was the Gleason had gone ahead and invited another ALS patient, also in a wheel chair.
“As we’re planning with team in Peru they told us, “Yeah we do this all the time,” which was complete bull, they had never done something like this before,” Fujita said. “So we start this hike which is supposed to take five to six hours according to the guides. It took 11 hours and we ended up in the high Peruvian Andes after dark and our guide, who said he had done over 3000 of these hikes before said it was the first time he’d ever come in after dark. So I guess we’re trendsetters.”
There’s also the part where, Fujita recalled, “We almost lost Steve.” As the group moved up the narrow path, the person carrying the front of Gleason’s chair lost his balance, which resulted in Gleason hanging at a 45 degree angle over a ravine being held in only by the Velcro straps he was strapped to his chair with. Once he was stabilized Fujita leaned over to ask Gleason if he was OK. His response? “This is f---ing awesome.”
“It was not bright and it was super scary and dangerous at the moment but we lived to tell the story and it’s a very good story to tell,” Fujita said. “And as Steve always says, ‘Awesome ain’t easy.’
Gleason’s journey has also highlighted just how strong the NFL brotherhood can be. Virtually everyone that Fujita has reached out to, or shared Gleason’s story with along the way has offered support both emotionally and financially. Even players who have never met Gleason have reacted upon hearing about his struggle with the disease.
Fujita acknowledged the role football has played in his life and in furthering their cause to raise awareness and find a cure for ALS.
“For me the football experience was as much about things you can do off the field as it is about things you can do on it. Never thinking it was going to be a reality for me and having to claw and scratch for a scholarship, I think I just recognized, hey if I ever got here I’d use this as a unique moment in time to perhaps generate some impact or awareness or advocate for things I’m passionate about so I should take advantage of that.”
And having a front row seat for Gleason’s journey has had an impact on his own life. Watching his friend, an active person who has embraced and sought out every experience he could without missing a beat has been profound.
“I like to think this has made me a better dad,” he said. “All the things the rest of us take for granted – teaching your kid how to skip a rock or how to overcome adversity or conversations around faith, relationships, love. Steve made a point to have those conversations on camera with his child so I gotta think that maybe it’ll make me a better dad and at the end of the day put the phone and computer down and spend more time with my kids. All parents can struggle with that balance and I like to think he has gotten me back into balance.”
It was those on-camera conversations for Gleason’s son, Rivers, who was born in late in 2011 that became the foundation for the documentary, Gleason, which was released in theatres at the end of July and on which Fujita served as a producer.
Most gratifying for those involved are the strides that have been made in finding tools for ALS patients and inroads toward a cure. Gleason is a test case with Microsoft for a piece of technology that allows him to speak and operate his wheelchair by using his eyes and which will hopefully be available to all patients in the near future.
“It’s a very exciting time to be in the ALS space because there’s more conversation around the disease than there ever has been before,” Fujita said. “A guy like Steve Gleason who’s living with this so publicly, that generates awareness, obviously the ice bucket challenge, and now our film is in theaters. It creates awareness. It increases dollars that are coming in for research and at the end of the day that’s what’s going to move the needle.”
Awesome ain’t easy.
For more information: www.teamgleason.org and www.gleasonmovie.com
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.