During a week so full of football, here’s hoping a fraction of that attention ultimately settles on a different type of football story.
The story inspired a movie that proves hardest to watch for the man at the center of it.
That man is former New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason, who described himself as counter-culture for his offseason adventures in third-world countries. Carmel Valley’s Scott Fujita – who helped produce the movie – remembers the first time he met him. It was the first day of offseason workouts, spring 2006, nine months after Hurricane Katrina, a few years before the Saints would win a Super Bowl for a resilient city. While everyone pushed weights, Fujita included, he noticed a player with “long flowing hair” doing yoga by himself. “That’s Gleason,” they told him. “He does his own thing.”
Fujita says, “I had a feeling we’d be friends.”
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At first Gleason detected weird muscle spasms. A few months later, at 34, he was diagnosed with ALS and given a life expectancy of a few years, over which he would slowly lose control of his body. Soon Gleason, now 38, found out his wife, Michel, was expecting a child.
A video journal launched as a way to document his symptoms transformed into a gift for his son – here’s how you skip a rock, here’s how you ask a girl out, here’s how you adapt, here’s how you adventure.
Gleason went skydiving, interviewed Pearl Jam, spoke at the United Nations, starred in a Super Bowl commercial, attended the State of the Union Address, founded the largest ALS research project and forged the Team Gleason foundation.
Fujita was a founding board member. Gradually, over firepits and pizza, he and other close Gleason friends with seemingly predestined specialties – producing, fundraising, finance – worked with his family to evolve a plan for a movie built from his diaries.
Fast forward. Gleason: The Diary of a Saint follows him across four years and 1,300 hours of video, artfully edited down to a 110-minute film.
His voice alone makes it worth a view. “Muscles die, people die,” he says to the camera. “I intend to find a way to win. God save me, I’m gonna be around until you’re able to stand on your own.”
Director Clay Tweel, whose credits includes cult hit King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters and award-winning documentary Finders Keepers, sifted through it all.
“[Gleason’s] goal was to allow a general population to see the rawness and vulnerability and day-to-day problems of what an ALS patient goes through,” he says. “It was very harrowing and inspiring to see that.” Later he told Screenwriter magazine: “By the end, [Michel’s] struggle would be just as palpable.”
At 2016’s Sundance Festival in Utah last week, the results wowed. (Just the sizzle reel left me misty and galvanized.)
Geoff Berkshire was in the audience. “It would’ve been easy to play Gleason’s story for sentimental uplift meant to inspire others to live life to its fullest, or as a feature-length fundraising ad for the Team Gleason charity assisting those living with ALS,” he writes for Variety. “Gleason may accomplish both of those things anyway, but any such benefits come honestly and without manipulation by inviting viewers along on an intimate journey and holding nothing back.”
It drew a nomination for the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. Time called it one of the biggest movies at Sundance. Amazon bought its rights as part of one of the biggest documentary deals ever inked.
“The audience response was super-rewarding,” Fujita says. “Even the buyers were visibly shaken and moved, crying during the pitch meetings.”
Amazon will partner with Open Road, the distribution company behind movies including Spotlight, Chef and End of Watch, meaning it will debut in hundreds of theaters sometime this summer.
“There’s something powerful about people crying their eyes out and laughing their asses off – together,” Fujita says.
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One of the film’s zingers – Gleason’s line, “My future will be far greater than my past” – can seem overly ambitious, disingenuous or naive. What’s ahead that beats his globetrotting, pro-athlete past?
But to see all the things happening through Gleason and his family gives the line an aspect of understatement.
Microsoft had him keynote a hackathon designed to lay out a challenge. He said, in short, I’m expected to fade away and die. That’s not OK. His challenge: “I want to walk, talk and play.” He’s on his way, now the most proficient adopter of the Microsoft tech allowing him to talk with his eyes (and play with his kid).
The Steve Gleason Act was signed by President Barack Obama in July, ensuring Medicare supports eye-tracking devices. The Ice Bucket Challenge, which he helped inspire, set off a full-blown social media revolution whose full effects won’t be felt for a long time. People like Fujita’s wife witness the power of leaving a legacy so personal. “He should be so proud,” she told her husband. “I would love to have more of mom preserved.”
That’s the thing: Like the first time Fujita met him, Gleason’s not thinking like everybody else: He’s thinking beyond vanity, big picture, overall impact. That impact is growing quickly. It will explode when this hits theaters. And it will perpetuate itself long after he’s left any earthly playing field.
Those who haven’t eaten at Andre’s Bouchee (626-7880) can’t be considered true Carmel gourmands. AB’s new exec chef is Paris native Benoit Petel, last seen doing beautiful tarts, sauces and meats with Brad Briske at il Grillo and la Balena, and can’t be considered anything but a good fit for the Mission Street landmark, after serving at the stylish French outpost as a sous chef.
More big Carmel chef news: A visit last week demonstrates Exec Chef Matt Zimny has a good thing going after taking over the kitchen at Affina (250-7744) in Carmel. Hint: foie gras dumplings. Get more on his intuitive snacks and Alaskan background on the blog tomorrow.
Folktale Winery & Vineyards (293-7500) does “Laughter in the Vines Comedy Show” happens 8pm Saturday, Feb. 6 ($25, www.folktalewinery.com).Jackie Flynn, Johnny Steele and Diana Hong headline. More on the blog, www.mcweekly.com/edible.
True story: The 15-inch Baldemiro’s burrito that caused so much ruckus has been trumped by a 16-incher at Papa Chevo’s (393-1610). More on the blog.
Chesebro Wines (659-2125) is closed until further notice thanks to a flood.
A Sinatra and Crosby Clambake tribute celebrates Bon Ton L’Roy’s Lighthouse Smokehouse one-year anniversary 7pm Thursday, Feb. 11 ($15, 375-6958).
Holy caviar and crumpets. The ultimate foodie indulgences await. GourmetFest brings in 17 master chefs Feb. 25-28. Pebble Beach Food & Wine 2016 arrives March 31-April 3.
The headquarters for Justin Timberlake’s 901 tequila during AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am is the Starlight Rooftop Lounge at Vesuvio (625-1766).
Junior League’s 14th Annual Get Crackin’ Crab Feed hits San Carlos Hall in Monterey 5:30pm Saturday, Feb. 6 ($65, tinycc/CrabFeed2016).
February is National Potato Month.
Chocolate fountain, great Cabs and deals on bottles at Heller Estate 5-7pm Saturday, Feb. 13 ($10-$15, 659-6220).
Writer Gever Tulley: “Persistence and resilience only come from having been given the chance to work though difficult problems.”