Former Cougar football and NFL standout Steve Gleason ’00, whose battle with ALS has become an international symbol of perseverance and determination, has been named the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus for 2017.

“Steve Gleason epitomizes the essence of ‘Cougar Spirit,’” said Washington State University President Kirk Schulz at the August 10 ceremony. “His passion to persevere and succeed despite life’s challenges has inspired thousands, not only in the United States, but around the world.”

Steve Gleason, Grady Emmerson, Kirk Schulz
Steve Gleason received WSU’s highest alumni honor in August, presented by his friend and teammate Grady Emmerson ’99 and WSU President Kirk Schulz. (Photo Ryan Durkan)

Gleason helped take WSU to the Rose Bowl in 1997 and in 2006 had a punt-blocking dive for the New Orleans Saints that rallied the hurricane-ravaged city’s down-but-not-out spirit. Five years later, he was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 34. The terminal neuromuscular disease has since left him immobile and reliant on eye-controlled technology to communicate.

Gleason, however, continues to fight back.

He and his nonprofit foundation, Team Gleason, have raised millions for ALS research, persuaded the U.S. Congress to restore funding for speech-generating devices, and elevated global awareness of the debilitating disease through advocacy and educational efforts.

During the award presentation at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Gleason addressed the crowd through audio technology he controls with a series of eye movements. He credits former Coach Mike Price and others at WSU with reinforcing a commitment to helping others, which has guided his life. That commitment, he added, has kept him focused through numerous life challenges.

“Naturally, part of the reason for receiving this award is because of how I’ve handled ALS (and) part of how I’ve been able to handle ALS is because of my experience here at WSU,” he said, thanking the Board of Regents for the honor. “Coach Price told the football team something that would stick with me forever: ‘I’m interested in what you can do for people that cannot help you in return.’ I think that is what being a Coug is all about. That’s our spirit and legacy as WSU alums.”

His longtime friend and former WSU teammate Grady Emmerson ’99 described Gleason as the kind of guy who has always been focused on accomplishment, a trait known well to any of his teammates, but one that his battle with ALS has demonstrated to the world.

“We dream about it; Steve does it,” Emmerson said. “I do truly believe that this man would be receiving this award whether or not he was diagnosed with ALS. He would have done something else to find his path to be on this stage.”

Tributes to Gleason’s courage and character have been growing. In 2012, the New Orleans Saints erected a statue alongside the New Orleans Superdome commemorating Gleason’s diving punt block. A highly acclaimed documentary chronicling his ALS battle debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. And, Washington State Magazine featured the growth of his foundation and its advocacy efforts in “No White Flags” in the Spring 2016 issue.