NEW ORLEANS -- The blocked punt that etched Steve Gleason into Saints lore and became symbolic of New Orleans' resilience in the face of disaster is now immortalized in a nine-foot statue outside the Superdome.
"That statue is not about football," Gleason, straining to speak because of the effects of ALS, said moments before the formal unveiling on a rain-soaked Friday afternoon. "It's a symbol of the commitment and perseverance that this community took on before that game.
"There were 75,000 people in that stadium and few hundred thousand others outside the stadium who had already committed themselves to coming back and rebuilding this community. So that statue is a symbol of what they did. And I think that moment was the moment when we as a team got to share that commitment and perseverance with the rest of the world."
Gleason famously blocked the ball off of the foot of then-Atlanta punter Michael Koenen and into the end zone for a Saints touchdown on Sept. 25, 2006, the night the rebuilt Superdome and the city of New Orleans hosted an NFL game for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.
The statue, entitled "Rebirth," depicts Gleason fully outstretched in a dive, his hands smothering the ball as it leaves Koenen's foot.
When Koenen, who is also fully depicted in the sculpture, heard about Friday's event, he tweeted: "Awesome day for an inspirational man ... God bless you in your fight partner!! Half of me likes your statue (smiling face emoticon)."
Koenen's statue, however, is missing all of the Falcons' logos. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the Falcons repeatedly refused to grant their division rival permission to use the logos.
In early 2011, Gleason, a former Washington State defensive back who retired from the NFL in 2008, was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The terminal condition causes gradual paralysis. Gleason, once a fearless special teams standout who never shied away from bone-rattling collisions with players much bigger than him, now gets around on a motorized wheel chair.
With the help of family, friends and benefactors, he has maintained an active and busy life, and has started the Team Gleason Foundation, which seeks to improve the quality of life for those living with ALS through means such as technology.
"Steve is a guy who, no matter what the circumstances, he is always thinking about doing for others, and how can I make this world a better place ... and everything he has done since being diagnosed with ALS just proves that point even more," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "It's amazing to see a guy who continues to sacrifice for others. It's inspiring and something that we should certainly all look at and know that our lives are better because of Steve Gleason."
Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt said Gleason's courage and toughness were obvious from the time he first saw him on a football field. He added that Gleason continues to be an inspiring force now.
"If we watch Steve Gleason and if we listen to Steve Gleason, he's going to give us the answers," Vitt said. "I'm humbled, I'm blessed that he's into my life."
Gleason exhibited his ever-present sense of humor, drawing laughs when he opened his comments by saying, "The last time I had a 9-foot statue of me unveiled was -- never. So this is a little bit overwhelming."
Gleason added that the statue resonates with him as someone afflicted with a debilitating disease.
"People say, 'Oh Steve, this is such a tragedy what's happened' with my diagnosis," Gleason said. "Then I'm driven to say, 'What can we do to turn that tragedy into heroics?' "
He added this message to others with ALS: "Despite what other people say about our situation, we can take this and turn it into something inspiring and impactful to all the rest of the world. That's what that statue is."