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2022 NCAA Inspiration Award Recipient: Stephen M. Gleason

Jan 19, 2022

The following story regarding WSU Hall of Famer and 2022 NCAA Inspiration Award recipient Steven Gleason, came out in advance of the 2022 NCAA Honors Celebration, which will be streamed live Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 at 4 p.m. PT. Fans can watch a live stream of the event HERE.

Stephen M. Gleason abandoned hope decades ago.

The word doesn't even apply to his story, in his view.

A two-sport standout at Washington State who played seven seasons in the NFL, Gleason was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, in 2011. He's since become a global leader in fundraising for and bringing awareness to the neurodegenerative disease, as well as helping provide technological opportunities to others with ALS. Not to mention he's a father to two children, Rivers and Gray.

But hope is not a word Gleason — a 2022 NCAA Inspiration Award winner — would use to describe his journey with ALS.

"If I hoped to play linebacker in college, or hoped to play in the NFL, I'd have been on the streets in no time," said Gleason, who communicates via eye-controlled technology. "If I hoped for a treatment or cure for ALS, I'd have been dead in 2014."

A better word? Trust.

"Trust is a great word, if you're seeking truth, peace and freedom," Gleason said, adding that there are a few steps to reaching this holistic level of trust. "Trust in life is the ability to live resiliently. Resilience is the ability to accept the circumstances life brings us, good or bad, in every moment, transforming myself to become innovative with any and all resources we can access or discover. At this stage, from my experience, we can trust in life, and have a mind at peace. In doing so, all problems, discontent and adversities become opportunities."

In the months after Gleason's diagnosis, his mission was to find a solution to what appeared to be an unsolvable problem. His mission wasn't a cure, necessarily, but a path to a meaningful life despite having a disease that destroys physical functionality.

"The answer came in the form of technology," he said. "And I wanted to pay that forward."

He's done so through Team Gleason, a nonprofit he and his wife, Michel, founded in 2011. One of the priorities within Team Gleason's mission is to provide advanced technology for people with ALS, empowering them to continue living purposefully and productively. So far, the nonprofit has provided more than $15 million worth of assistive technology to people with ALS. Team Gleason also has partnered with companies to advance the technological opportunities in this space. Notably, this led to the creation of a system that allows people who are disabled to navigate power wheelchairs with their eyes.

Gleason said today's technology is "downright miraculous." He's able to type, speak, and navigate a computer or tablet through it.

"I can text, tweet, even pull up any song I want on Spotify. Technology allows me to control nearly everything in my environment — computers, TVs, lights, thermostats, blinds and doors — using just my eyes," Gleason said. "Ultimately, our goal is to turn people's disabilities into super abilities. Until there is a medical cure for ALS, technology and innovation can be that cure."

While Gleason is more than two decades removed from his time at Washington State, where he was a team captain in football and baseball, the people he met there had a profound effect on his life.

Specifically, Gleason recalled a moment from his freshman football season at Washington State when then-special teams coordinator Craig Bray told him he had NFL potential. At that point, Gleason had played only on special teams. An NFL career seemed farfetched.

"After he said that, I had the confidence that I could do anything I wanted in life, including play in the NFL," Gleason said. "I think about those words to this day. They remind me that I can still do anything I want in life."

Former Washington State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Bill Doba also changed Gleason's life. He even invited Doba to attend his Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in 2020.

Doba's biggest impact on Gleason? Instilling the importance of trust.

"He was going to ask us to do some incredibly difficult tasks, take risks and be truthful in our faults. It was critical that we had relational trust," Gleason said. "He put me in situations I thought I had no business in. He made me prove myself wrong."

It's a lesson Gleason continues living every day, one he's used to inspire millions to see opportunities, no matter their circumstance.

"I believe we are resilient beings, and we can make the choice to embrace and accept life's experiences, no matter what. If we can do this, there is a strength within us that we didn't previously recognize, a resilience to move through discontent and suffering," he said. "This resilience brings space and peace — a true freedom. Rather than allowing the struggle to consume me, I chose to accept the reality of my situation and then got innovative with any tools I could access to see and share the beauty in my life and transform myself to ultimately grow stronger."