SPOKANE, Wash. - Steve Gleason will tell you playing linebacker for Gonzaga Prep is a hard-earned honor in a program with great tradition.
Running around at linebacker as a two-time GSL Defensive MVP for Prep from ’92 to ‘94 is how he found his passion for football and led to a star career at WSU and in the NFL.
Now Steve uses his fame from football to raise awareness about the terminal disease called ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, that's slowly destroying his muscles.
His story inspires others, in particular one of the great Prep linebackers from the ‘80’s, Tom McKeirnan, and his 16-year-old son, Cael, who plays the same middle linebacker position as his dad and Steve.
Tom McKeirnan was one of the best to ever play the position for the Bullpups in ’85 and ’86.
He was first team All-State and made the final tackle as Prep won their last state championship in ‘86.
He moved on to play college football at Santa Clara. Before he started law school in '92 he returned to help coach the Prep linebackers. That's when he first saw Steve Gleason as a sophomore linebacker.
"Gleason was this ball of energy. I remember vividly standing next to [Gonzaga Prep Defensive Coordinator] H.T. Higgins and we were talking about who's the best of the guys who would play next to the kid who's being recruited. I said, “Not only is 34 [Steve’s number] the kid that's going to play, I'm not so sure he's not better than the kid who's being recruited,’" said Tom.
"He was small,” continued Tom. “Probably 160 or 165 pounds. Pretty small for a GSL linebacker, but he could hit, he could run, he had a nose for the ball, he was great."
But Steve had to grow into the great Gonzaga Prep linebacker tradition just like every linebacker before him.
"He couldn't handle things going bad. Something bad would happen and he would freak out sometimes. I remember when he was a sophomore telling him, ‘You're a great player and great players don't freak out.’ Ironic thing is the next year he was so calm, you almost had to get him to get himself going at that point," said Tom.
As Steve led WSU to a Rose Bowl as an undersized linebacker, Tom became a lawyer and started a family.
Tom talked to his oldest son, Cael, about Steve as Cael grew up and Steve carved out an eight-year career as a special teams star with the New Orleans Saints.
"Talking to Cael about him when he was playing for the Saints, I was quite proud, really probably bragging about the fact I used to coach that kid. Now he's playing for the Saints. I’d say, ‘Isn't that great?’" said Tom.
Now Cael is the starting linebacker for the Bullpups as a junior, just like his dad and Steve.
"Little bit of pressure, but it's a good thing, though,” said Cael. “Lot of high expectations and it's a good tradition to come into. That you expect to play well and people expect greatness from you."
Tom said it’s a pressure that every Gonzaga Prep linebacker feels.
"I never felt worthy of being in those shoes when I was there. I know how he feels about that. Every guy has to make his own way," said Tom.
Since playing linebacker runs in his blood, Tom talked to Cael about the honor of being a Prep linebacker.
"He's told me about the long tradition of linebackers. He was All-State, but he wasn't in the top five linebackers to come through Prep. Not even close he says," said Cael.
The best linebacker to come through Prep is now in a wheelchair. Steve’s ALS diagnosis in 2011 has robbed him of the ability to walk, talk and eat. His life’s mission is to show ALS patients they can live full lives after the diagnosis and to raise awareness of the disease. He’s started a non-profit organization called Team Gleason that works on that mission every day under Steve’s mantra of “No White Flags.”
Steve came back to Prep in August to have his jersey number 34 retired. Most of the football team came to see the ceremony and listened to Steve’s message through a synthetic voice that he typed with his eyes.
"Breathtaking," said Cael. "I never really understood. First time I had ever seen him in a wheelchair. Immobile. But even though he's immobile he's still flying around in his heart."
The connection runs deeper than just a jersey retirement. Cael sees Steve's inspirational messages almost daily: On signs that hang in Prep classrooms, on the backs of t-shirts and on the wristbands of his teammates.
The team talks about Steve weekly including reading a message from Steve before a recent game.
The note read: "The purpose of my message is to inspire you to be poised, persistent and courageous…
Do this to inspire me, to support myself in a mission to achieve the impossible. Let's do this. Have fun tonight. Exhaust yourself in the mission. Steve Gleason. A Bullpup."
Head football Dave McKenna said this about Steve minutes before a recent kickoff: "I thought about Steve and what he means to this program and the gifts he gives us. We do a No White Flags cheer, we wear the wristbands. But, really, if he were here tonight, how would you play? Think about that as you go down on that football field. Shouldn't change the way you play. It's your opportunity to inspire him."
After living his life surrounded by the Prep linebacker tradition and Steve’s inspirational message, Cael only wants to play one way.
"Like him… Go out there, fly around, play your hardest, no matter what it is," said Cael.
While the play on the field is important to both father and son, the lessons learned from Steve's example off the field are even more important.
"I'd like him to follow in Steve's footsteps in terms of thinking outside of himself, being a person for others and being a part of something bigger than himself," said Tom.
"[I want to emulate] how he battles through adversity every single day of his life. The least we can do is battle through adversity on the field. In the end football is just a game. Because he's going through things much harder than a game," said Cael.
"For Cael to see this, that he's met him, that he has the same background as Cael does, that he has done all these incredible things, what an incredible role model and inspiration for a 16-year-old student at Gonzaga Prep," said Tom.
Three different Gonzaga Prep linebackers from three different decades, united by the one with a simple message: inspire.