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Race in honor of retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker O.J. Brigance raises money for ALS

They came 40-strong, wearing green shirts emblazoned with the team name “Mac Strong.”

Together, they trudged a 5.7-kilometer route through Southeast Baltimore to raise money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. They walked in memory of their loved one, Leon McCreary, who died from the neuromuscular disorder last year.

The family and friends of McCreary were joined by hundreds of others touched by the disease at the annual Championship Race hosted by the Brigance Brigade Foundation, named for former Ravens linebacker O.J. Brigance, who has lived with ALS for 11 years.

Terri McCreary said the Brigance foundation was a rock for her family as ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, quickly took over her husband’s body. The organization helped them get a mechanical wheelchair and meet other needs. Since Leon McCreary’s death, the group has called to check on the family.

That’s why Terri McCreary and her family were there Sunday to give back.

“They really understand the family’s role,” she said. “It’s so important to have the kind of support that they provide. I want to be able to help other families now as well.”

Chanda Brigance, the always positive and passionate wife of O.J., said that is what she likes best about the event. Families are caught off guard when the disease hits, she said.

“The most important thing is that this is about people helping people,” she said.

O.J. Brigance said he is always happy and encouraged by the number of people who show up for the event, including 1,300 this year.

Technology has helped people with ALS continue to live full lives, Brigance said, looking at a computer that helps him communicate through eye movement.

“My hope is that people would take away from today's festivities a sense of empowerment,” he said. “The thing I want people to know about ALS is that although there is a loss of physical abilities, our minds remain sharp. We are still very capable of contributing to society with the assistance of recent technological advances. As with any life trial, if you have faith and a positive attitude, you can overcome any challenge.”

Brigance has used his condition to bring attention to the disorder. The crusader known for making the first tackle in the Ravens’ first Super Bowl win in 2001 was diagnosed with ALS in 2007 after noticing a change in his right arm while playing racquetball.

He and his wife started the Brigance Brigade Foundation in 2008 after enduring the financial and emotional stress of the disorder. Their hope was to empower families living with ALS. The organization has raised millions for ALS research and support.

The race, which started and ended in Canton Waterfront Park, is in its fifth year. It also includes a 1-mile family run and walk. They chose the 5.7-kilometer distance in commemoration of Brigance’s jersey number, 57, during his 12-year football career.

Still a front office executive with the team, Brigance makes his way to the Ravens headquarters each day to mentor players as part of his role as senior adviser for player development. He is known for his positive attitude and the inspiration he brings to players.

A host of players and staff from the Ravens came out Sunday in support of the race, including president Richard W. “Dick” Cass, who at age 72 ran a brisk pace of just above an 8-minute mile. Cass said he has never missed a Brigance Brigade race.

“I come out to support O.J. and Chanda,” Cass said before the race. “ALS is such a tough disease, and O.J. has been such a positive advocate.”

Former Ravens linebacker Brad Jackson walked the race with his daughter and wife. He first met Brigance when they were both with the Miami Dolphins, Jackson as a rookie. Brigance would take him to church when he acted like a “knucklehead.”

“He is still such a great role model in my life,” Jackson said.

Ravens defensive back Eric Weddle came with his wife and four children to walk the race. The team’s former defensive end Michael McCrary was also on hand.

Debbie Knight and her family participated in the race in honor of her husband, Frank, who died from the disease in January. They called themselves Frank’s Army.

“I can’t bring him back,” she said, her eyes misting. “But I know what people need and I can help.”

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ankwalker

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