Gleason looking for spot

Published 9:05 pm Thursday, August 10, 2006

Steve Gleason walked out of the New Orleans Saints locker room wearing surfing shorts, his long, curly, sandy hair flopping on his shoulders. He looked like the type of guy you’d see catching waves off the coast of Central America.

He has, in fact, been surfing off the coast of Central America. His brother taught him during a trip to Nicaragua a few years ago. He’s also hiked in the Andes mountains, and the Galapagos, and Easter Island. He’s been whitewater rafting in Chile, snowboarding in Oregon, wakeboarding in Washington, sea kayaking and skydiving.

This is not your typical NFL player. So it only makes sense he’d carve out a career on that unit known as special teams.

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“I think there’s a whole lot of life to be lived out there,” Gleason said after a recent practice. “We’re all the author of our own life. If you’re going to read a book, you want to read a fun and exciting book. Life is a great adventure.”

The 29-year-old Spokane, Wash., native and former Washington State player is now trying to stay on the Saints’ roster for his seventh season as a pro. Other than his rookie season in 2000, when he made the practice squad and eventually saw action in several games, this preseason could be among his toughest on a team with a new coach in Sean Payton and a host of new prospects at safety, where Gleason is a reserve.

“All I can do is go out and do what I do every summer, which is give everything I got, and at the end of the day, I believe there will be a spot for me,” Gleason said.

Although Gleason was brought in under former coach Jim Haslett, Payton is watching him closely.

He’s aware that while Gleason has played only sparingly in the defensive backfield, he has been a leader on special teams. Gleason has 77 special team tackles since 2002, 53 of them solo. He had a blocked punt in three straight seasons from 2002 to 2004.

“When it comes to some of these guys that have played well on special teams for us, they’ve made it for a reason,” Payton said Wednesday between practices at training camp. “If a guy jumps up and can help us in those areas, and they’re detailed and accountable, those are guys who have a chance to make the team with this regime as well. … Steve seems to have some of that.”

While Gleason is quick to espouse an outlook of “there’s more to life than football,” he sees his NFL career as one of his many adventures — and one he’s not ready to give up.

“It’s so awesome to be part of the NFL. We’re doing something — I’ve been doing something six years — that people dream of doing,” Gleason said. “When you get tired and your feet hurt and you don’t want to do that extra step or whatever … take a step back and look at it and like, say, ’Hey, this is a sweet adventure that I’m on right now.”’

New Orleans is a place that takes football seriously, but also embraces its numerous eccentric characters. That has made Gleason among the more popular players in his adopted city, even though he’s not a marquee player like Joe Horn, Deuce McAllister, or the newly arriving Drew Brees and Reggie Bush.

“I’m the perfect kind of popular. I don’t really want it any other way,” Gleason said. “I would rather get to know people and have them not know that I’m a Saint, and then if they find out later, it works out great for them and for me. It’s much harder to get to know someone when that’s what they’re looking at you as. It’s harder to stand on equal ground.”

If Gleason is at all image-conscious, it’s not in a way that seeks to impress with glitz. He showed up at training camp last year driving his girlfriend’s Volkswagen Beetle.

His own car was a Volkswagen before Hurricane Katrina, when it was flooded. He has since bought a diesel pickup truck. Of course, he runs it on vegetable oil.

If he wanted to be incognito as he dines in uptown restaurants, cruises around music clubs in the Marigny, or watches soccer at Finn McCool’s Irish pub, he could start by cutting his hair. But then, how could that not affect the persona of someone who describes surfing’s transcendental nature as follows?

“It’s so much more than athletic ability. You have to read waves and understand how it works. And then you think about the perspective of it — this wave is created because of some temperature difference 2,000, 5,000, 8,000 miles away, and this little energy wave traveled to me and spilled itself to me right here — and, you know, I missed it!”

Now he just has to make sure he doesn’t miss the cut at the end of training camp. But if his ride with the Saints runs out, his relationship with New Orleans won’t.

His girlfriend, Michelle Varisco, is from New Orleans’ flooded Lakeview area and her family is rebuilding its homes and businesses. And more than that, the Crescent City suits him.

“I love the town, I love the people,” Gleason said. “Obviously there’s parts that are frustrating about it that everyone knows about. But that’s also part of what makes New Orleans so unique and so special and a place I’ll always want to come back to. In some form or another, I’ll be a part of New Orleans — forever.”