Steve Gleason became the first former NFL player to receive a Congressional Gold Medal -- the highest honor that Congress can bestow on a civilian -- during an emotional ceremony Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Gleason, who was a special teams standout for the New Orleans Saints, was recognized for his crusading work as an advocate for people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He is only the eighth individual athlete ever to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
Gleason pointed out during the ceremony that his is "not a football story or even an ALS story, but rather a human story."
"The truth is that we all experience pain in our lives, but I believe that the problems we face are our opportunity and define our human purpose," he said.
After concluding his speech, he received a standing ovation from a crowd that included members of the Senate and House of Representatives, Saints quarterback Drew Brees, team owner Gayle Benson, and current and former NFL commissioners Roger Goodell and Paul Tagliabue.
Gleason, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, speaks through groundbreaking speech-generating technology that allows him to type words on a tablet through eye movements. The voice is actually his own, thanks to recordings he taped during the early stages of the disease.
Gleason and his foundation were the driving force behind The Steve Gleason Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015 to make critical technology available to patients through Medicare and Medicaid.
While ALS has taken away his muscular function, Gleason's mind and wit remain sharp, and he drew a laugh from the crowd from one comment in particular.
"While sharing one's weaknesses may not be common practice for people, especially for politicians in an election year -- wink, wink -- sharing my weaknesses was entirely critical for me to play eight years in the NFL," he said, noting the importance of collaboration in solving problems and overcoming obstacles. "And it has been unquestionably critical to my survival and purpose for the last nine years, living with a disease as dreadfully beautiful as ALS.
"Our human potential is boundless," Gleason said.
His emotional speech left Brees choked up as he recalled the time when he first heard about Gleason's diagnosis.
"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," said Brees, who pointed out that Wednesday was both his 41st birthday and the 11th birthday of his son, Baylen, also in attendance.
"Quite honestly, there was no place we would rather be than here with you right now," Brees said. "And there is no person more deserving of this honor than you."
Several elected officials from both houses of Congress also gave moving speeches about Gleason, who was unanimously selected for the honor by both houses of Congress before President Donald Trump signed the legislation.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced Gleason as a "true American hero."
"You bring luster to this award and pride to our nation," she said.
The short list of past athletes who received the Congressional Gold Medal: Roberto Clemente, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
Gleason's most spectacular moment on a football field came when he blocked a punt against the Atlanta Falcons to spark a Saints victory on the night the Superdome reopened in 2006 post-Hurricane Katrina.