With no voice, Brigance continues to spread his message

Ravens executive has lost most movement to ALS, but continues to hope for a cure

September 13, 2011|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

Each week, we bring you a Q&A with a Ravens player, coach or team executive to help you learn a little more about the team. Today's guest is O.J. Brigance.

O.J. Brigance sits at a table in Sullivan's Steakhouse, speaking with his eyes.

Brigance suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease, which has robbed the former Raven of both speech and body movement. Brigance converses via a high-tech device called a DynaVox, which allows him to "talk" by focusing on a computer screen, and blinking, to form words and sentences.

Brigance, the Ravens' director of player development, was stricken with ALS in 2007 and has dedicated his life to finding a cure for the disease, the life expectancy for which averages two to five years. His organization, Brigance Brigade, has raised over $500,000 with the help of the Packard Center (at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.)

A onetime linebacker and special teams' standout who starred in the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl victory, he is the only pro player ever to win both Canadian and National Football League championships in the same city. Brigance, who will be 42 this month, earned a Grey Cup ring with the Baltimore Stallions in 1995.

In his wheelchair, in the restaurant, he is flanked by caretakers, who monitor his vital signs, and his wife, Chanda. Brigance greets a reporter with a broad grin, one of the few movements he can still muster.

Technology is a wonderful thing – you're able to communicate just by moving your eyes – but how difficult has it really been to continue your mission without speaking verbally?

I have been able to communicate well with my DynaVox, even with the loss of my voice. The only frustration is the inability to communicate real time and conversations. By the time I finish typing, the topic may have changed, so it requires patience. With that being said, praise God I can still audibly communicate.

My inability to speak hasn't affected my mission, because a picture is worth a thousand words. I just have to provide the caption every now and then.

Do people who've been diagnosed with ALS come to you for support and, if so, what advice do you give them?

I have had the opportunity to speak with other ALS patients. My encouragement to them is: Don't stop living in spite of people and circumstances telling you to accept your condition and go peacefully. I find when I speak to others that I am encouraged. Proverbs says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." Our trials come to mold us, and encourage those going through similar trials.

What's your opinion of the new safety measures included in the NFL collective bargaining agreement, i.e., no more two-a-days, less full contact drills at practice, etc?

My opinion of the new safety rules in the CBA are mixed. I am pleased that the health and safety of the players has been moved to the forefront.

What was your relationship with former Baltimore Colt and Hall of Famer John Mackey, who died in July of frontotemporal dementia, and how can you compare your lives? Is Chanda, your wife, your own Sylvia Mackey?

I wasn't fortunate to have known Mr. Mackey, but was blessed to benefit from he and Mrs. Mackey's tenacious efforts to advance the rights of players, both on and off the field. The "88 plan" is one example of the fruits of their labor. I think our lives parallel, in that we were blessed to have the opportunity to do what we love to do and to help others through our personal adversities. We were both divinely matched to extraordinary women who have the level of strength tailor-made for anything that would come up in our lives. My queen bee, and Mrs. Mackey, are unique and splendid in their own right.

What is still on your bucket list to do, both personally and professionally?

I have not written my bucket list, but as I think about it, I would like to go to Africa on safari, see Mount Rushmore, and write a book.

How often do you go to work? Do you attend Ravens' practices and games?

I go in to the facility four to five days a week now. During the off-season, it may be less frequent. Barring any unforeseen issues, I try to catch every practice and attend every home game. I enjoy watching the players take what they learned in practice and execute it on game day.

Have you received any speeding tickets for zipping down hallways in The Castle (the Ravens' headquarters in Owings Mills) in your wheelchair? How fast can you drive that thing?

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