Brigance hoping to get in position to succeed

September 25, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

It was clearly not the conventional path that brought O. J. Brigance to Baltimore last March as one of the Canadian Football League's premier pass rushers.

The unorthodoxy started in high school, where Brigance was a center on the offensive line at Willow Ridge in Missouri City, Texas, outside Houston.

It continued at Rice University, which he attended because "nobody else wanted me."

And it followed him to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he launched his CFL career in 1991 with the B.C. Lions in three-down country.

The journey leads to Ottawa today, where the Baltimore CFLs play the Rough Riders at Frank Clair Stadium.

The latest leg of Brigance's odyssey is proving to be a study in perseverance. A linebacker the last three years at B.C., he became a rush end in Baltimore, a 6-foot, 220-pounder contesting 300-pound offensive tackles and 200-pound fullbacks.

It was not a match made in heaven -- and Brigance's numbers reflect that fact.

The quicksilver pass rusher who recorded 20 sacks last season has just three through 11 games this season for Baltimore -- none in the past six games.

"I know I was brought in to do a certain job," he said. "I haven't been able to master that job. Last year I put up good numbers. I was able to use my pure, God-given abilities [to get to the quarterback]. This year I've been forced to learn more in pass-rushing technique."

At the strong, or wide side, end position, Brigance was unable to free himself from the grip of 300-pound offensive tackles. When he did manage to extricate himself, he most often was met by a blocking back. His speed was being negated by brute force.

That began to change four weeks ago when the CFLs signed Elfrid Payton to play strong-side rush end. Brigance moved to the short side, where he sees fewer double teams and is better able to use his speed.

Along the way, Brigance became a student of the position. He worked on diversifying his trademark "rip" move from the outside.

In last week's 35-18 victory over Saskatchewan, Brigance experienced a breakthrough. He collected seven "delivery sacks," or hits on the quarterback as he is releasing the ball.

It was easily his best performance to date.

"His game is getting better and better," coach Don Matthews said. "As the season goes on, he's adding to his repertoire. He was just a speed man when he came. Now he has some moves."

Brigance has always been a speed man, even as a center at Willow Ridge High. He just wasn't the speediest. That's how he wound up at center.

"Our running backs ran 4.4s, 4.3s," he said. "We were a sweep team. I'd get out and pull."

It was a school rich in talent. When Brigance was a freshman, Thurman Thomas of the Buffalo Bills was the star. When Brigance was a sophomore, Stan Petry -- a former NFL defensive back now on the CFLs' practice roster -- was the quarterback. Other NFL players who passed through Willow Ridge included cornerback Selwyn Jones and tight end Charles Arbuckle.

Brigance persevered. By his senior year, he was a first-team, all-state center in Texas, no small feat.

He went to Rice as a middle linebacker when no other Division I-A schools would give him a shot. And at times, his speed was a detriment.

"I would overrun plays," he said.

Through determination, he became an all-Southwest Conference linebacker by his senior year.

At Rice, Brigance didn't think of an NFL career, but of a business career. He got his degree in managerial studies, with a minor in economics.

One day, Brigance will find a niche in the business world.

"I hope to be my own boss," he said. "I've been blessed to be in football. It's presented me with various opportunities to get into business."

Brigance, who turns 25 next week, counts his blessings often.

"He's been relentless in his work to improve himself," said Marty Long, the defensive line coach. "For him to learn all the things he's putting together takes playing several games. And sacks are sometimes overrated if you make a quarterback get rid of the ball when he doesn't want to."

Reality visited Brigance along the way, too.

Three weeks ago, his grandmother, 77-year-old Magnolia Brigance, died.

"That put it all in perspective," he said. "We're not going to be here very long, and while we're here, we've got to do the best we can with the situation we're in. That brought things into focus."

What also helped was the support of his wife, Chanda, a native Texan like Brigance.

"She's been a great support during the low times," he said. "It's always good to know somebody is there for you unconditionally when you come home -- whether you get two sacks or none."

For all of his problems this year, Brigance doesn't regret the decision to sign as a free agent with Baltimore and leave Vancouver.

"Change is inevitable," he said. "If I'd stayed in B. C., it wouldn't have been right. My heart brought me here. I wanted an opportunity to get stateside, and I wanted the best choice for my family.

"My wife and I walked out on a plank by coming here, but we found a lifeboat."

OFF HIS GAME

Coming off a 20-sack season with British Columbia last year, O. J. Brigance was expected to be an impact player on the Baltimore defense. Brigance is second on the team in sacks, but is on a pace for only 5 1/2 for the season.

Year .. Tackles .. For loss .. Sacks

1993 ...... 59 ..... 10 ........ 20

1994 ...... 24 ...... 2 ......... 3

Baltimore vs. Ottawa

Site: Frank Clair Stadium, Ottawa

When: 1:30 p.m. today

T.V. None

Radio: WJFK (1300 AM)

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