O.J. Brigance inspires Ravens as he battles Lou Gehrig's disease

Former Baltimore Ravens player O.J. Brigance, center, his Former Baltimore Ravens player O.J. Brigance, center, his wife Chanda, left, and former Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, second from right, visit the Ravens locker room after the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. (Jan. 20, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

advertisement | advertise on newsday

OWINGS MILLS, Md.

It started with a tingling sensation in his right arm.

O.J. Brigance was playing racquetball at the Ravens' training facility in the fall of 2007, and he didn't really think too much of it. He had experienced physical symptoms far worse and far more troubling when he played linebacker for the Ravens, Rams and Dolphins. So he figured he'd give it a few days' rest and let the problem clear up on its own.

But it never did.

After several more days of tingling and numbness, and at the urging of his wife, Chanda, Brigance saw a doctor. He then was referred to other neurological specialists -- four in all -- and each came up with the same shocking diagnosis.

Brigance had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal illness commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. Doctors said he had three to five years to live.

Last Sunday, more than five years after being diagnosed, Brigance sat in his wheelchair inside the Ravens' locker room after they defeated the Patriots, 28-13, in the AFC Championship Game. Then he presented the team the Lamar Hunt Trophy.

No longer able to speak and requiring the use of a ventilator to breathe, Brigance said through a computerized device he uses to communicate, "Congratulations to the Baltimore Ravens. Your resiliency has outlasted your adversity. You are AFC champions. You are my mighty men. With God, all things are possible."

Afterward, Ravens players and coaches yelled Brigance's nickname: "Juuuuuuuuuuiiiice!!" He then received their embraces, having reached a part of every member of the organization through his courageous battle.

"O.J.'s been our strength," said Ravens safety Ed Reed, who presented Brigance the game ball. "O.J. took me under his wing when I first got here and everything he's been through and is going through, to still be the same O.J. and being a light to you and being a light for our team. He's been like an uncle to me and like a brother. I love Juice."

"Every day I came out and told O.J. that you're my greatest motivation,'' said linebacker Ray Lewis, who will be playing his final NFL game next Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII against the 49ers.

Brigance, 43, was one of Lewis' teammates when the Ravens beat the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa and now is the team's senior adviser to player development, a position he has held since 2004.

Brigance continues to work full-time, regularly interacting with players, coaches and team officials. Not a single member of the organization hasn't been touched in some way by the former linebacker and special-teams ace.

"Our strength is made perfect in our greatest weakness," coach John Harbaugh said. "And here O.J. is, visibly in a weakened physical state yet in an incredibly strong spiritual and intellectual place, and he shows that every day. He's just a shining light in the building, and we all definitely are energized by that."

But ask Brigance, and he will tell you that it is the other way around. That it is those around him who give him the will to live.

 

The journey

Sitting in his office Thursday at the team's training complex in suburban Baltimore, Brigance talked about how uplifting the team has been through his ordeal. Through the steady hum of his ventilator, his hands are motionless on his lap but his eyes and lips still are able to move, and Brigance explains.

"This Ravens Super Bowl run has showed me that if you continue to strive for a singular goal with one unified soul, you can accomplish great feats," he said. "There will always be critics to try to defeat your dreams. Don't use them as haters, but stimulators. Super Bowl XLVII means so much to me, not because of the game. It's the journey it took to get here.

"The journey is where personal growth and maturation comes, and of the stories of the men on this team," he said. "They have all overcome challenges and adversities to be on this national stage. It makes me extremely proud of them."

ALS has robbed Brigance of the ability to speak, and he no longer can move his extremities, but his mental and intellectual capacities have not diminished. All he can do physically is blink his eyes and move his lips. And as anyone who knows Brigance will tell you, his smile can light up a room.

Brigance communicates through a computer, made by DynaVox, programmed to type in letters and words by receiving cues from his eyes. Brigance looks to each letter or word on the keyboard, then enters them into the computer. He instructs the computer with his eyes to play his pre-written answer. It often takes him several minutes to compose a single sentence. For this interview, Brigance received the questions hours in advance.

Brigance has been an inspiration to the Ravens. Players. Coaches. Administrators. They all speak fondly -- lovingly -- of him.

Asked about his role as an inspiration to the players and coaches, Brigance tells you it's actually the other way around.

"The truth of the matter is those men inspire me," he said. "They have helped give me a reason to get up out of the bed every morning. There is a Biblical proverb that says, 'As iron sharpens iron, so does one man sharpen another. We are making each other better men."

Ravens public relations executive Patrick Gleason said Brigance gets to know every person in the organization; in fact, when Gleason was an intern with the organization in 2005, he was struck by how caring a person Brigance was.

"Here I was this intern and he asked my name -- made sure to know my name -- and got to know me," Gleason said. "To see him now, the guy comes to work every single day. It's amazing, really."

"Juice, that's my man," wide receiver Jacoby Jones said. "He's like another Ray Lewis. He gives us inspiration every time you see him. That's just all love. We love Juice."

Brigance -- Juice -- feels the love. And feeds off it.

"When people say I inspire them, it encourages me to continue to persevere through this light and momentary trouble," he says.

Yes, he refers to his life-altering situation as "light and momentary."

"I realize that what I am enduring now is not only for my development but to also be able to help those dealing with the same issues," he said. "I am blessed to have the opportunity to serve God in this current state."

 

Hope and faith

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Brigance does not worry about how much longer he has to live. In fact, he continues to believe that he will be able to overcome ALS despite the fact that there is no known cure.

According to the ALS Association, approximately 5,600 people in the United States are diagnosed with ALS each year. It is estimated that as many as 30,000 may have the disease at any given time. Life expectancy for most ALS patientsis between two and five years from the time of diagnosis, according to the association, but about 20 percent of people with ALS live five years or more. Up to 10 percent will survive more than 10 years, and five percent will live 20 years. It is estimated that more than 5,000 people die from the disease every year.

Recent medical research suggests a potential link between playing football and ALS, although the science is not yet a conclusive association between repeated head trauma and the disease. A study published in the journal "Neurology" last September by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that NFL players may be at a higher risk of death associated with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, ALS and other impairments of the brain and nervous system than the general U.S. population.

"I don't know what caused my ALS," Brigance said. "My focus is how do we end ALS and how do we improve the quality of life for us all in the meantime."

Soon after he was diagnosed with the disease, Brigance set up an organization called the Brigance Brigade (BriganceBrigade.org) to help others suffering with the disease.

"We came up with the vision of this because we realized so many others are going through it," said Chanda Brigance, who has been married to O.J. for 23 years. The couple met at Rice University, where Brigance was a standout linebacker.

"It's very expensive as far as all the equipment that's needed. We understand we've been blessed to get help, but we said, 'Hey, how about helping and supporting others who are living with ALS to give them resources to help purchase equipment.' "

Chanda is continually inspired as she watches her husband battle his disease with such strength. But she is not surprised, not after seeing what his reaction was after learning of his illness.

"As anyone would react with a life-threatening disease, you spend your time as in a little bit of sadness," she said. "You roll on the floor, you cry your tears and say, 'Oh, my gosh, what am I gonna do?' But then you dry 'em up, you stand up, you dust yourself off and say, 'OK, how are we going to deal with this? You want to fight? You want a challenge? We're going to give you one, and we're going to take your head off.' "

She learned something else from her husband's ordeal, too. She learned about herself.

"What I learned about myself is how strong I am and how much I will push things to make them right," she said. "I've learned about patience, because you really have to develop that with this. I've learned that I was raised well. My mom raised me not to be lazy and to take care of what's mine. He's my husband, so I want to provide a good home for him, take care of him, make sure he's safe.

"I was raised with good morals," she said. "Good character was instilled in me to get through this walk. If I didn't have that, I think like some other people, I would have bailed out a long time ago. I didn't because that strength was in me already."

Qadry Ismail has known Brigance since 1997, when the two were teammates in Miami. They also played for the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl championship team. The man Ismail knew then is the same as the one he knows now, even with Brigance's physical limitations.

"What I noticed right away when I first met O.J. at a Bible study group when I was with the Dolphins was his ability to love on you, to respect you, to talk to you in a way that wasn't preachy, that wasn't judgmental," said Ismail, now a commentator on Ravens radio broadcasts. During an interview, Ismail had to pause several seconds because he had become so emotional talking about Brigance.

"What struck me was how uplifting O.J. was," he said. "You could tell he wants to help be better men. I thought right away, 'That dude is special.' "

And funny, too. Like the time at Super Bowl Media Day 12 years ago, when the Ravens were in the locker room after the interview session was over. Players were imitating Ray Lewis' "Squirrel Dance" that he does when he comes out of the tunnel for pregame introductions. Brigance was urged to do his version but initially declined. At the urging of several teammates, he finally relented.

"He says, 'I'm not doing it,' and then he turned around and did a spot-on Ray Lewis dance, just nailed it," Ismail said. "The locker room erupted. Juuuuuuuiiiiiice!"

Ismail remembers Brigance as a terrific player, too, a special-teams standout who had a broad understanding of the game and who used his unique blend of strength and intellect to fashion a solid professional career.

A three-year starter at Rice from 1988-90, Brigance went undrafted in 1991 and decided to play in the CFL. He started out in 1991 with the British Columbia Lions, where he played for three seasons. He then played for the Baltimore Stallions the next two seasons, making the league's All-Star team in 1995 with seven sacks. He was a key contributor on the Stallions' Grey Cup championship team in 1995, the team's final season in Baltimore before it moved to Montreal.

As a free agent, Brigance signed the next year with the Dolphins and spent four seasons there on special teams. He immediately drew the respect of his coaches and teammates, was voted a team captain twice and won the Ed Block Courage Award in 1999.

A year later, Brigance joined the Ravens and soon became one of their top special-teams players, finishing with 25 tackles in the regular season and making 10 special-teams tackles in the Ravens' run to the Super Bowl XXXV title. He made it to the Super Bowl again the following year with the Rams, who lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. Brigance played one more season with the Rams.

"As a player, that dude was hard-nosed," Ismail said. "I was watching the Super Bowl [XXXV] a while ago and he was in on almost every special-teams tackle. He knew his stuff, the details of special teams. People don't realize there's an art to playing special teams. He knew the game and he played it well."

Brigance left the NFL after the 2002 season and rejoined the Ravens two years later, serving as director of player programs. Ever since, he has been a sounding board for current and former players, helping them with any number of issues they confront in dealing with career and family issues.

Ismail said Brigance has a unique way of helping people despite his illness.

"It's wonderful to see how he's been able to motivate men and still inspire a ton of men in that Ravens locker room," Ismail said. "I love how the organization as a whole didn't look at the disease that stripped him but rather at the mind. They saw what I saw, what all these other men saw. It's the same man of character I first met at that Bible study in Miami, just as consistent as can be. I love him for it. I really do."

On a mission

While in New Orleans this week, Brigance hopes to meet with another former NFL player suffering from ALS. Former Saints special-teams standout Steve Gleason, whose blocked punt on the night the New Orleans Superdome opened for the first time after Hurricane Katrina was one of the most memorable plays in team history, was diagnosed with the disease in 2011.

Gleason has coined the saying "no white flags" as a way of persevering against the disease.

"Steve Gleason is my fellow warrior, and I love him for that," Brigance said. "He gets and understands the vision. As he would say, 'No white flags.' Steve understands there is purpose behind the pain, and he is all in. He understands the impact we can make, and I look forward to joining him in New Orleans to crush ALS."

Gleason, who has relied heavily on Brigance's advice, also is anxious for the get-together.

"I regularly lean on [Brigance] for advice on topics like wheelchairs, diet, maintenance and therapy," said Gleason, 35, who also communicates through the DynaVox device. His responses to questions were emailed to Newsday.

Gleason is committed to raising ALS awareness, and uses his website -- TeamGleason.org -- to spread the word.

"ALS is a terminal disease that prevents your brain from communicating with your muscles," he said. "It leads to paralysis and death. I have it. You have not heard much about ALS because it is under-funded and under-resourced. As a result, most patients are forced to fade quietly and die. O.J. and I and, really, the entire current generation of ALS patients are on a mission to change that."

Gleason isn't sure if football caused him to get ALS, but his main focus is finding a cure and advocating for other ALS patients. "Although recent studies show a higher incidence of brain disease in NFL players, our best scientists are still unable to determine what causes ALS," he said. "I think O.J. and I are focusing our efforts on finding solutions. We are trying to use our platform to find solutions for the thousands of people who never played in the NFL who die every year from ALS."

Brigance would like nothing more than to see the disease eradicated, and he hopes to partner with Gleason and spread the message.

In the meantime, there is one more piece of football business ahead in New Orleans for the Ravens' inspirational leader. Does he believe the Ravens have what it takes to beat the 49ers?

No words are necessary for this one.

His smile says all you need to know.

You also may be interested in: