By Aaron Wilson
The Baltimore Sun
7:56 AM EDT, September 25, 2013
Six years ago, Ravens senior adviser to player development and former linebacker O.J. Brigance was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
And Brigance celebrated his 44th birthday Tuesday night at Pimlico Race Course in a Southwest-themed party for the Texas native attended by his wife, Chanda, his parents, retired Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, general manager Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Ravens players Ray Rice, Marshal Yanda, Sam Koch and Morgan Cox and several Ravens staffers.
"This is a testament to the power of overcoming the odds and the strength to walk this journey," Brigance said. "Six years ago last May, we received our ALS diagnosis. By the grace of God, we continue to press forward to achieve all that God has created us to do. This is much more than a birthday party. It's a celebration of the grace of God and the human spirit and the courage that lives inside all of us.
"Our circumstances are never an excuse to prevent us from achieving all that God has appointed us to do. If anything, adversity provides great clarity, which allows us to make a difference in the lives of others. Through our adversity, we have found purpose in our fight against ALS and are so blessed to have each of you standing with us."
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the cells in the brain and spinal cord. Often referred to as Lou Gehrig's Disease after the former New York Yankees first baseman, the disease causes muscle atrophy and difficulty speaking, swallowing and breathing. There is no known cure.
Brigance has maintained a strong, influential presence at the Ravens' training complex, attending practices and games and communicating daily with players to provide them support and guidance and is often described as an inspiration by the defending Super Bowl champions.
"His story alone is just amazing and it strikes a chord with my family," Rice said. "My grandmother on my mother's side passed away from ALS. I didn't get the chance to meet her because I was so young. My mother told me the stories about the disease and how it affected her mother. It just so happened I now have this miracle, O.J. Brigance, in my life. He's a mentor to me.
"The most humbling thing is getting an email from him because you know the time it takes to actually write the email. Having a conversation with him is just like having a conversation with anyone else, it just takes more time. If you're patient, you get a great message. He's a miracle."
Brigance is coming out with a book on Oct. 22 called "Strength of a Champion: Finding Faith and Fortitude Through Adversity." The book was co-authored by Brigance and Fox Sports' Peter Schrager, who attended the party, along with a foreword from Lewis.
"My book, 'Strength of a Champion,' is a book of inspiration to encourage people to know that we can overcome any adversity or obstacle that may come our way," Brigance said through his machine. "The opportunity to share my cumulative life experiences to help others makes every obstacle worth it.
"I am feeling energized as I celebrate 44. 2013 has been a special year starting with the Super Bowl. I can't wait to see what happens next."
A sports memorabilia auction was held to benefit the Brigance Brigade, his foundation to raise awareness and research about ALS and benefit families dealing with ALS.
"This means so much to O.J.," said his wife, Chanda Brigance. "He's here to see another year. We're excited about that."
"I had to be here because I'm so touched by the love [Chanda Brigance] you share with O.J. and the inspiration O.J. is to everyone," Rawlings-Blake said. "You inspire me, you inspire everyone."
Cox said he never knows when words of wisdom from Brigance will pop into his inbox.
"O.J. has been such a great mentor to me, he's always encouraged me," Cox said. "Even in the offseason, he'll email you randomly, checking on you. He's been an amazing influence. He's been awesome for me, encouraging me."
The Ravens (2-1) have rebounded from a 49-27 season-opening loss to the Denver Broncos, defeating the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns in the past two weeks.
Brigance had predicted after the Denver game that the Ravens would bounce back.
"I am excited and encouraged about the Ravens this season," Brigance said. "There were a lot of questions about how we would fare this season with so many changes. We had a rough start in Denver.
"Being the resilient team that we are, we learned from our mistakes and are getting better every week. We will just keep fighting to position ourselves to win the division and make the playoffs. Once you make the playoffs you have a shot."
NOTE: For more information about Brigance's foundation, go to the website.