Brigance is back in town for Round 2

June 22, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

No football player has won a Grey Cup and a Super Bowl representing the same city. Until O.J. Brigance signed with the Ravens, no player ever had a chance.

Brigance, a standout linebacker for the 1995 Grey Cup champion Baltimore Stallions, said his familiarity with the city wasn't the "be-all, end-all" in his decision to join the Ravens as an unrestricted free agent.

Likewise, Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome wasn't acting out of sentiment when he signed Brigance to compete for the sixth linebacker position and be a "significant contributor" on special teams.

Still, the return of Brigance to Baltimore is the feel-good story of the Ravens' often troubled off-season, linking the city's NFL team to the former CFL franchise that continues to evoke deep passion among its core followers.

"To this day, each Christmas, I get a Christmas card with a Stallions logo on it from some of the old Stallions fans," Brigance said. "I was just talking to [former Stallions linebacker] Elfrid Payton a couple of days ago. He said, `Did you know they sent me a birthday card?' He was so moved by that."

It all seems so long ago, the Stallions' ill-fated fight for the Colts' name, their back-to-back Grey Cup appearances, their wacky CFL rulebook, complete with rouges, three-down possessions, 12-man sides and wider, 110-yard fields.

The whole thing was like a strange dream, a brief but bizarre chapter in the city's football history. For two seasons, the Stallions filled a void, if only for certain fans who were angry with the NFL for jilting Baltimore in expansion.

And then, suddenly, they were gone.

The Cleveland Browns announced they were moving to Baltimore on Nov. 6, 1995. The Stallions captured the Grey Cup 13 days later, knowing they were doomed. They remain the only CFL team to win 18 games in a season.

"It was bittersweet," Brigance said. "We knew we were out of here."

Few in this NFL-starved city were broken-hearted when shameless owner Jim Speros took the team to Montreal, leaving behind a trail of angry creditors.

But the Stallions left on a 13-game winning streak. The players were regular Joes who evoked memories of the old Colts. And Brigance, in particular, was admired for the way he carried himself on and off the field.

"He was my favorite player," said former Colts running back Tom Matte, a limited partner in the Stallions and now a Ravens' radio broadcaster. "Anything I asked him to do in the community, he would be there.`This is the kind of guy I'd like to see back in football, the kind of guy who sets an example for other athletes. He's a pure example of what a football player should be."

The 6-foot, 236-pound Brigance was a typical CFL star, undersized by NFL standards. But as it turned out, the CFL's failed U.S. expansion created exposure for players that did not exist before.

Six former Stallions remain in the NFL - Brigance, Miami guard Mark Dixon, Pittsburgh punter Josh Miller, Pittsburgh tackle Shar Pourdanesh, Green Bay long snapper Rob Davis and Washington special-teamer Reggie Givens.

The team excelled because it consisted entirely of Americans, as opposed to the original CFL teams, which were required to carry a quota of Canadians. Yet, it took the demise of the Stallions for Brigance to get a shot at the NFL.

"That was such a blessing," he said. "It goes to show that you never know what God has in store. If that wouldn't have happened, I probably would have stayed in the CFL."

Brigance, deeply religious, frequently refers to the path the Lord has chosen for him. He thought that path might lead him right back to Baltimore at the end of the '95 CFL season. The first team to contact him was none other than the Browns.

By Brigance's own recollection, the workout went "terrible." He took that as a sign to train harder, but even after he signed with the Miami Dolphins, his future was uncertain. The first number he received at training camp was No. 45. "And if you're No. 45 as a linebacker," Brigance said, "chances are, you're going to cut."

Fortunately for Brigance, former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson kept the best players, regardless of pedigree. Brigance became a valued member of Miami's special teams, lasting four seasons. In 1999, he overcame back, elbow and ankle surgery to appear in all 16 regular-season and two playoff games, and the Dolphins named him their recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award.

Newsome said Brigance told Ravens coach Brian Billick of his desire to return to Baltimore during the two-day Ed Block program in March. Now, with Brigance and Dennis Stallings joining Bennie Thompson and Billy Davis on special teams, the Ravens expect their most inconsistent unit to improve.

"It's pretty exciting," said Brigance's friend, Mike Gathagan, the Stallions' former director of media relations. "I'm one who was pretty bitter when the Browns came in and swept the town off its feet. Now, if O.J. makes the team, I'm a Ravens fan."

He won't be alone. Fans loved the Stallions because the players seemed thrilled to be playing professional football, even at modest salaries. Brigance is even more appreciative of his position today, knowing how far he has come.

As a rookie with the CFL's British Columbia Lions, he had to buy his own shoes and gloves. As a first-year player with the Dolphins, he noticed a soda machine at the team's practice facility, and went looking for change.

"The guys said, `You don't need change, just go punch the button,'" Brigance recalled, laughing. "I was like, `Wow! I'll go and take a couple of these.' "

With that, a toast is in order.

Here's to the Stallions.

Here's to O.J. Brigance.

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