SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel and Steve Gleason first met during their freshman year at Gonzaga Prep High School.
They've remained friends ever since, and on Wednesday, Hazel will see his friend receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the country's highest civilian honor, in Washington D.C.
"Steve and I have been best friends since freshman year in High School. We both attended Gonzaga Prep together and freshman year we struck up a friendship that has continued on to this day. And, I consider him one of my very best friends," Hazel said.
Gleason grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep. He then played safety for the Washington State Cougars and the New Orleans Saints. A statue of Gleason blocking a punt against the Atlanta Falcons in the Saints' first home game after Hurricane Katrina is located outside Mercedes Benz Stadium in New Orleans.
Gleason retired in 2008 after eight seasons in the NFL. He was diagnosed with ALS in Jan. 2011.
"We were Christmas shopping in 2011, and he called me and he said, 'I need to come to your location wherever you are,' and he came right out to the mall and I knew something was wrong but i didn't know what it was," Hazel said. "And it was at that time that he told me of his ALS diagnosis. I think his first reaction was denial this can't be right, this cant' be correct."
Hazel said one Gleason processed the diagnosis, he decided to fight as hard as he could against the disease and to remain positive.
"I think he went through a mental process of, 'What do I do about this? Do I just die a graceful, do I wither away, or do I fight the fight?' And Steve chose to fight the fight and maintain positive, and chose to really adopt the adversity that he was facing and grow from that adversity, which is frankly really inspiring," Hazel said.
Throughout his fight with ALS, Hazel said its been inspiring to see Gleason's use of technology and his efforts to help other people with ALS.
After his diagnosis, Gleason started Team Gleason, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about ALS, improving the lives of those living with the disease and searching for a cure.
"It is truly amazing what he's done as far as using technology as a gap measure to live a meaningful and purposeful life, and also being an example for other ALS patients that you don't have to lie and wither away in a bed," Hazel said. "So that been a real inspiration to watch as well."
When it comes to the Congressional Gold Medal, Hazel said Gleason is incredibly honored to be given the award. Other recipients include Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama and Rosa Parks.
Although its an individual award, Hazel said his best friend is thinking of how to use it to help those with ALS.
"One thing I know about Steve is, obviously, he is incredibly honored by being awarded one of the most prestigious awards given in our nation," Hazel said. "But I know what he's thinking, and he's thinking 'How do I turn this into an advantage for other people?' And it's not just about the accolade, it's about how he will use this to advance the cause for people that are suffering brain disease."