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Steve Gleason had already lived an event that defined a lifetime, a moment measured in the seconds it takes for a football to travel the distance from snapper to punter.

Gleason, a special teams player for the New Orleans Saints, blocked a punt against the Atlanta Falcons that was returned for a touchdown on Sept. 25, 2006 — a simple play that reverberated among a healing city in the team's first home game since the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

It was enough to define one man as a legend, but when Gleason was diagnosed with ALS five years later at the age of 34, the narrative of his life shifted. That story is being told in a new documentary, "Gleason: The Diary of a Saint," competing at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Director Clay Tweel, who drew audiences with "Finders Keepers" last year at the festival, said the filmmaking team has been embedded with Gleason since his diagnosis; Tweel signed on after seeing an initial trailer two years ago.

Parts of Gleason's story have already played out in projects from ESPN and NFL Network, but Tweel said "Gleason" digs deeper. The documentary features 1,500 hours of footage, 27 hours of video journals, and 220 eye-typed journals by Gleason, who has lost near total muscle control as a byproduct of the disease.

"For this, football and ALS are definitely parts of the story and showing the daily struggles with the disease," the director said. "But really the fatherhood aspect and the effects that these diseases have on your family was what was most important to us."

Gleason, along with his wife Michel and close friends, decided the documentary was necessary to "try to capture as much of who I am (memories, philosophy, shortcomings, wisdom, etc.) as possible" for his son Rivers.

Former Saints linebacker and producer Scott Fujita called Gleason "charismatic" and "larger than life" — before and after his diagnosis.

"To be on that journey with him, it's a joy. Even with the pain and everything that's come with this, it's an absolute joy," Fujita said.

The documentary premiere Saturday showcased Gleason's poignant progression, from his time as a standout Washington State linebacker and NFL special teams ace, to a man struggling with simple movements and coming to terms with the final days of his ability to speak.

Former Saints tight end Eric Johnson, who played with Gleason in 2007, recalled his teammate enjoying yoga and meditation amidst the chaos of playing a violent sport — "living life just as he wanted to."

"Steve played football, was great at it and had a special gift," Johnson said. "But that energy comes through in whatever he does and I believe he has — more than most people — the ability to really make change."

From "Finders Keepers" to the "Gleason" project, Tweel's priorities shifted from finding humanity underneath a "crazy story" about two men fighting over a mummified leg to telling the tragedy of a charismatic former football player and new father slowly succumbing to ALS.

"There's so much humanity and it was like, 'How are we going to create this story without it being unwatchably sad the whole time?'" Tweel asked.

The director found hope in documenting the day-to-day challenges down to the minutiae — highlighting the few minutes at the end of each day Rivers climbs onto Gleason's lap where Michel helps her husband make contact with his son.

"Just that lack of physical touch is something that we all kind of take for granted. Just that very little small moment is so important to Steve to help him keep connected with his son," Tweel said.

Toward the end of the film, Gleason is shown pulling his son on a weight sled with his electric wheelchair, passing under a photo of his blocked punt inside the Saints' indoor practice facility — a stark reminder that when one act of life ends, another begins.

He said after the film premiere that he's still teaching his son to spell and to have a simple coversation — a father teaching life's simplicity and complexity as well as he can.

"Really, the initial impulse to pass myself on to our son Rivers is as strong as ever," Gleason said. "I still write 10 journals every month. Now that Rivers is older, we're able to really connect to each other."

Posed with the question of who the real Steve Gleason is — the football player, the devoted father and husband, or the tireless champion of fighting ALS — Tweel says they're all intertwined as the same guy.

Gleason says his life can't be fragmented that way, distilled into the moment of a football play or a father teaching his son.

"I rarely think of my life in terms of legacy," Gleason said. "For me, it's more productive to ask, "Who am I?" or "What is my purpose?" or " What am I grateful for? I think, for all of us, our legacy will be defined by how well we pursue answers to those questions." Twitter: @BrennanJSmith —

"Gleason" at Sundance

"Gleason" screens at Sundance on the following dates:

Saturday, Jan. 23 • 11:30 a.m., MARC Theatre, Park City

Sunday, Jan. 24 • 3:15 p.m., Grand Theatre, Salt Lake City

Monday, Jan. 25 • 9 a.m., Temple Theatre, Park City

Thursday, Jan. 28 • 6:30 p.m., Peery's Egyptian Theater, Ogden

Friday, Jan. 29 • 8:30 a.m., Prospector Square Theatre, Park City

Friday, Jan. 29 • 6:15 p.m., Grand Theatre, Salt Lake City

Saturday, Jan. 30 • noon, Library Center Theatre, Park City

The 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Where • Park City, and at venues in Salt Lake City, Ogden and the Sundance resort

When • Through Jan. 31

Tickets • $20 per screening. Box offices are in the Gateway Center, 136 Heber Ave., Park City, and in Trolley Square, 600 East and 600 South, Salt Lake City

Wait-list information • Register at and download the app to your smartphone or tablet; waitlist tickets are $20, cash only

Program guide • Online at

All the news • Keep up with the Salt Lake Tribune's full Sundance coverage at