Producer Mike O’Connor goes from being inspired to compassionate, his speech goes from staccato to measured when talking about his upcoming Sunday NFL Countdown and E:60 piece focusing on former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason.
“To meet Steve, and see how he relates to his almost-two-year-old son Rivers, stirs up a lot of emotions,” O’Connor said. “It’s equal part inspiring – he’s awesome – and equal part gut-wrenching. Doctors say he is going to die.”
Gleason is best known for blocking an Atlanta Falcons’ punt which was recovered for a Saints touchdown before an ESPN Monday Night Football audience Sept. 25, 2006 — the night the Superdome reopened after Hurricane Katrina. He was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. Gleason has found the music of Pearl Jam inspirational in his battle with ALS and in strengthening the bond with his son.
O’Connor, a Pearl Jam fan, said: “This piece is the most emotional I’ve done, for sure, and the one I feel the most connection to.”
The confluence of sports, rock, life-and-death and a paternal relationship began when Pearl Jam chose to promote their 10th studio album, Lightning Bolt, which drops Oct. 15, with a documentary featuring four personalities interviewing them about the upcoming CD. One of the interviewers chosen was Gleason, a former Washington State University star.
“The guys in the band are fans of The Magazine, and ESPN in general, so they offered us access to this, and I pitched it to the shows where I thought it would fit,” said ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer Alyssa Roenigk.
Gleason, from Spokane, Wash., has been friends with guitarist Mike McCready since the band first came to prominence in the Pacific Northwest. More than friendship, however, it was their conversations – including Gleason’s analogy of former teammate Drew Brees and Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder as leaders of their respective teams/bands – that prompted McCready to suggest Gleason as an interviewer.
That Vedder lost his father at a very young age — the Gleasons are fighting what is considered a terminal neuro-muscular disease with their “No White Flags” mantra — makes their one-on-one interview perhaps the most “gut-wrenching” part of O’Connor’s piece.
“Spending time with Steve Gleason and his family is a joy and a privilege,” said reporter Chris Connelly, who besides this piece also helped produce a feature on a healthy Gleason when the Saints star was leading a project to rebuild levees after Hurricane Katrina. “Anyone who’s been a music fan will appreciate the way Steve has spent the last 20 years absorbed by the songs of Pearl Jam, and will be touched by the band’s great respect and affection for him. Anyone who’s been a parent will be moved by the messages he is leaving behind for his young son. In his words, in his actions, in his being, Steve reminds us all that it is love which endures.”
Ed note: Steve Gleason: Soundtrack of My Life is scheduled to run on Sunday NFL Countdown (10 a.m. ET ESPN) and E:60 (Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN)