Tackling adversity, off the field

Former Ravens player O.J. Brigance shows perseverance in the face of his toughest fight: Lou Gehrig's disease

March 10, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

O.J. Brigance remembers the 2001 Super Bowl like it was yesterday, when he charged down the field for the Ravens and collided with a kick returner for the first tackle of the game.

Now, everyday activities like eating are as challenging as his old workouts. Picking up a fork these days feels like lifting more than a hundred pounds of weights.

Brigance, 38, was diagnosed in May 2007 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive and fatal disease that shuts down nerve cells responsible for movement.

The body that allowed Brigance to compete at football's highest level is betraying him.

Brigance needs to be driven to work because he can't lift his arms. He needs to sit on the bed to put on his pants because he loses his balance. And he needs his wife to button his shirt because he doesn't have the same dexterity with his hands.

"I can see where you can fold up the tent," said Brigance, the Ravens' director of player development. "To be totally honest, I'm not always upbeat. It's tough. But I've always believed that we're able to overcome more than what we think."

Brigance will be honored tomorrow at the Ed Block Courage Awards, receiving the Johnny Unitas Tops in Courage Award for battling the disease with the same willpower he used to fight his way into the NFL. In 1996, he was rejected by 28 of 30 NFL teams when he called for a tryout, but ultimately had a seven-year career.

About 5,600 people in the United States are diagnosed with ALS each year, a disease that generally paralyzes muscles and the lungs, often causing suffocation, but doesn't impair the brain or any of the senses. There is no known cure, and most die within five years of being diagnosed.

Brigance could have chosen to walk away from his job and handle his ordeal privately. A former special teams standout who prided himself on outworking current Ravens in the weight room, Brigance knows he is a shadow of the overachieving player who played on winning teams in the 2001 Super Bowl and the Canadian Football League's 1995 Grey Cup in Baltimore.

His rippled muscles have disintegrated and his arms sag to the side of his body. His fingers can no longer wrap around a football, much less give a firm handshake.

But Brigance has dedicated himself to be a guiding hand to the Ravens' players, preaching to them that adversity makes you stronger.

"No one has beaten this thing, but I am going to be the one who does," Brigance told the players before the season began. "They're going to find a cure."

Despite the effects of ALS, Brigance has continued work that has become a standard of excellence around the NFL. As director of player development, Brigance assists players with each phase of their careers, including after their playing days are over. He also provides young players, especially rookies, with life skills programs to help them grow off the field.

The league's player development office has recognized Brigance as having the best overall program for the past two seasons as well as the best internship program in 2005.

Brigance's influence will now be felt outside the Ravens locker room.

Known for his gentlemanly way and ever-present smile, Brigance has become the ALS Ambassador for the Packard Center, the research center for the disease at the Johns Hopkins University. He is honorary chairman for the center's May 3 race in Baltimore, a fundraising effort for ALS research.

Brigance has also set up his own foundation, the Brigance Brigade, to create more awareness about the disease.

"I think we can all learn something from O.J.," said linebacker Bart Scott, who pointed out that he wears Brigance's number, 57. "If I can be half the man, player and husband he is, I think I will accomplish a lot in my life."

Perseverance

Brigance only wanted to play football.

It was hard for him to think anything else, especially when his mom gave him the name Orenthial James - a minor variation of the spelling of Orenthal James Simpson - in honor of her favorite sports hero.

To ultimately achieve his dream of playing in the NFL after being a three-year starter at Rice University, the Houston native had to rely on patience (a five-year journey in the CFL that took him from British Columbia to the Baltimore Stallions) and perseverance.

"Many people doubted that I could play, being smaller," said Brigance, who was a 6-foot, 236-pound linebacker. "So, I've always had that chip on my shoulder because I was going to show them, I was going to prove them wrong."

Brigance spent four seasons with the Miami Dolphins, where he was voted team captain twice. He then came back to Baltimore to play for the Ravens, winning the Super Bowl in January 2001. In the Ravens' 34-7 rout of the New York Giants, Brigance had five tackles on special teams.

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