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The Rich Spiritual Life of 2 NFL-players with ALS

The Rich Spiritual Life of 2 NFL-players with ALS October 13, 2021

ALS and spirituality
Will Kennard via Unsplash

The next time you’re feeling sorry for yourself—maybe you’ve had a bad day at work or an argument with your spouse or you’re feeling the aches and pains of aging—you might want to remember this story. It’s about 2 men facing the kind of adversity you and I can only imagine and how they not only overcome it but thrive in spite of it.

Steve Gleason and Tim Green are former NFL players who by football standards had long careers, playing in the pros for 7 and 8 years each. Today they both have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This irreversible nervous system disorder causes the gradual loss of muscle control throughout the body, until the only thing you can move are your eyes. There is no cure.

Both Gleason and Green are in the advanced stages of ALS. They have, in effect, become prisoners in their own bodies, requiring round-the-clock care. Yet, through some miracle of the universe (possibly God), they have found a way to see the beauty in life, to find comfort in the everyday things we too often take for granted.

Green is 57 and a former linebacker and defensive end who played for the Atlanta Falcons. You may have heard him in the past as a commentator with a booming voice on NPR’s Morning Edition. In retirement, he also practiced law and has written more than 20 books, including several that made the NY Times bestseller list. So, it was a bit of a shock to read this recent description of Green in The Times:

A ventilator keeps him breathing. He eats with a feeding tube. He cannot speak. He communicates and writes using a device that tracks his gaze as he selects letters on a screen to create messages that the device types out for conversations, or as a chapter in his next book.

According to the story, Green’s “powerful tenor voice that once melodically coursed over public radio airwaves” has been transformed. He now speaks in “halting, computer-generated sentences.” He is “nestled practically motionless in the high-tech chair that allows him to function” residing in “a body that can no longer survive without constant assistance.”

What is Green’s attitude about his current state of being? Surprisingly, it is one of gratitude. He says that he still has “plenty” in his life and reports that his days are filled with time spent with his kids and grandkids, working for his law firm and writing.

His gratitude practice begins when he awakes each morning. Each day, he gives thanks for:

  • Another day with his family, friends, and those who care for him.
  • His children and grandchildren and the fact several of them live steps away.
  • The nearby lake and “the hills, the trees, the birds, blue sky, clouds, wind, rain and snow. And the sun, moon, planets and stars.”

Gleason, now 44, is in a similar state with his ALS. He is confined to a wheelchair and cannot move a muscle. He communicates through his eyes using an eye tracking device on a computer to “speak.” Last year, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in part for helping others who also have ALS.

How does Gleason look at his ALS affliction? As part of his purpose. In his words, “I often have to step back and try to understand that the adversity I face is a brilliant opportunity for me to fulfill my purpose,” said Gleason. He tries to inspire others with ALS to make it part of their purpose.

Gleason shares that he often feels “a sense of enormous and overwhelming gratitude.” Life is difficult for his family, “but we have so many moments each day, moments of flourishing. And these moments don’t escape me and I often shed tears of joy. To be here, as a pretty involved father ten years later, (gives me) such beauty, such gratitude.”

I looked at Gleason’s Twitter account over the past few months and here are some tweets that stand out, picked up verbatim. They capture the seemingly impossible mix of joy and pain and gratitude that comprise Gleason’s life. In his words:

  • I don’t understand how this pathetic meatsack prison can transmit & radiate such boundless, incomprehensible energy, joy & Love.

  • Yikes, I just love being on this journey. The challenges & suffering have been extreme. It seems these extremes have ignited the beauty, wisdom & light in everything around & within. Remember – in our times of pain, we have the chance to grow in beauty & wisdom.

  • Gratitude practice is not just for when we feel good, or when life brings us what we want. What if gratitude has little to do with what we want? For me gratitude practice is recognizing this moment, no matter the circumstance, is good enough.

On Gleason’s Twitter feed, a fan writes: “You have inspired me to fight through the challenges in my life and to not fear the greater ones to come.” Like Tim Green, he serves as an inspiration to us all, by helping us to realize what truly matters in this life.

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