Ex-Saints safety Steve Gleason gets Congressional Gold Medal

GOLD FOR GLEASON: In this July 2014 file photo, Steve Gleason, diagnosed with ALS, uses his Microsoft Surface Pro-3 tablet to speak in Seattle. Gleason received the Congressional Gold Medal. Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON — Steve Gleason got in just under the wire.

Impeachment mania is about to consume the Capitol again, and Wednesday was proof. Press conferences were held. Harsh words were spoken. Poetry was mangled.

But first, a former NFL player fighting a progressive neurodegenerative disease collected his Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor awarded to civilians in the United States.

Some would call it bad luck that Gleason’s celebration in Statuary Hall fell on this particular day, when the “i”-word threatened to overshadow it. But if the onetime New Orleans Saints safety was bothered by the hubbub, he didn’t show it. He even got in a few digs at the lawmakers gathered to watch.

“Our greatest strength as a species has been our ability to bravely share our weaknesses and vulnerabilities with each other,” said Gleason, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease and uses a speech-generating device to communicate. “Sharing one’s weaknesses may not be common practice for some people, especially for politicians in an election year — wink wink.”

Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell sat side by side in the audience. All the pageantry of the afternoon — the pomp, the circumstance, the signing of the impeachment articles with multiple pens — was yet to come. For now, they were focused on only one thing: celebrating Gleason’s contributions to ALS advocacy.

For the most part, Congress got the moment right.

“To America, you’re lauded a hero, but to New Orleans, and the rest of Louisiana, you’re forever a Saint,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond from the podium. Fellow Louisianans Steve Scalise and Bill Cassidy echoed those sentiments, while Washington Sen. Patty Murray represented Gleason’s roots.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had a front-row seat. Across the aisle, former teammate and current Saints quarterback Drew Brees was seated with his son Baylen, both celebrating their birthdays.

“There’s no place we’d rather be than here with you,” an emotional Brees said.

The ceremony ended much like it began: with a standing ovation. It was time to clear the hall for the procession that would officially deliver articles of impeachment to the Senate, winding its way through the Capitol on a path marked out with lots and lots of velvet rope.

The Senate got the articles Wednesday. But first, Gleason got his medal.