Over the last few hours, in short stints and bursts, I was able to make it through Gleason, the documentary on the life of former NFL player Steve Gleason. Steve is a nine-year NFL veteran most noted for his block of an Atlanta Falcons punt in the first football game to return to the New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. I remember watching the game live on Monday Night Football while still coaching high school football and texting my head coach: “Did you see that?!?” It is one of the most dynamic and emotional plays I’ve ever seen in a football game, all things considered. And kudos to the television announcers, who let the moment speak for itself rather than blabbering all over it with their meaningless platitudes.
Shortly after retiring from the NFL, Steve was diagnosed with ALS. The film documents Steve’s progression with the disease and the video journal he created for his then unborn son. It also depicts in graphic detail the physical degeneration of a professional athlete in the prime of his life into an invalid. While the film is simultaneously heart-wrenching and inspiring, it is time well spent as a testament to the human condition. As a husband, father, son, brother, and human being, the documentary left me shaken and looking for answers to questions that can we cannot answer as individuals on this side of eternity.
- Why Steve Gleason and not me? Why are some condemned and others not? Steve’s wife Michel addresses this in the documentary when people comment on their lives and how they have responded in the face of such adversity.
- How would I react to a terminal diagnosis, either for myself or a family member? Would I respond with grace and purpose as Steve has? Would I live the life of a selfless, ever-present servant with a heart of gold as his wife Michel? Or would I take the easy way out?
- What will my kids remember about me? The teacher, coach, and administrator who worked tirelessly to take care of kids not his own? Or the coach who gave it up to spend more time at home coaching youth soccer and baseball and going to dance practice? The jokes, the laughs, the silly nicknames, the singalongs, and the horseplay?
- How have I let so much valuable time in my life go to waste? Precious time for which Steve Gleason and others with life-threatening and terminal diseases would give a king’s ransom.
- And knowing what we know, why don’t we change our behavior on a consistent basis?
Whether we are facing these questions presently or not, there are those we love, those we work with, and those in our classrooms and workplaces who are carrying these burdens on a daily basis. One of the most powerful skills an effective leader utilizes is the ability to listen and empathize. The mantra of “two ears, one mouth” has always resonated with me.
Listen. Hear them out. Connect with them on some level. If I have learned one lesson in emotional intelligence as a leader, it’s that you just never know.