Next month will mark a dozen years since O.J. Brigance had to make an important decision. The former Baltimore Ravens linebacker, diagnosed with the motor neuron disorder often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, had to figure out what to do with his remaining years.
At the sixth annual “Brigance Brigade” footrace in Canton on Sunday, Brigance said the strong support for his foundation’s fundraiser confirmed he made the right choice: “To not focus on the problem, but find a way to be part of the solution.”
The 5.7-kilometer race — slightly longer than the typical 5K race to commemorate the number Brigance wore on his Ravens jersey — was expected to raise about $180,000 to help people diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
About 1,000 people ran, jogged or walked to support the Brigance Brigade Foundation, which awards grants to help families cover the costs of care and medical equipment.
As they waited at the start line Sunday morning, Chanda Brigance told the participants that supporting those living with ALS is what motivates her and her husband every day. By joining in, she said, they could offer support, too.
“Because of you, we are able to help those living with ALS,” said Brigance, who will soon celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary with O.J. “You’re running for someone who is not able to run.”
For the fifth year in a row, Andrew Cantor was the fastest of those runners. The 27-year-old Canton resident covered the course in 19 minutes, 50 seconds.
He said he has been a fan of Brigance’s since he helped lead the Ravens to the franchise’s first Super Bowl. Brigance led the team in tackles during its 2000 season playoff run, which ended in a victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
After jumping in the race for the first time years earlier, Cantor said he has made a point to come back to support Brigance, and the strength he stands for.
“It’s a great cause,” Cantor said, one that teaches you “to be appreciative of what you have.”
Many of the participants said they, too, keep coming back year after year.
Ellicott City resident Beverly Byron, 66, said she starting coming to the race after hearing Brigance’s story, and keeps coming because ALS “could happen to anybody.”
“I do this for his cause and for the people he’s trying to help,” she said.
The Brigances launched their foundation in 2008, the year after O.J.’s diagnosis. With the annual races and a yearly “Soiree with O.J.” party, the organization has raised more than $1 million for families of people with ALS and for ALS research.
“We’ve seen growth every single year,” said Stephanie Chall, the foundation’s executive director. “We want O.J.’s legacy to be front and center, and that is to help families.”
A number of current and former Ravens were in the crowd: Tom Zbikowski, Eric Weddle, Jarret Johnson, Anthony Levine, Tony Jefferson and Jimmy Smith.
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Brigance played one season for the Ravens, and after retiring from professional football, returned to the team to join its front office in 2004. Since 2010, he has served as the team’s senior adviser to player engagement, a role players said is instrumental in instilling confidence in the team.
Levine said Brigance sends him inspirational quotes every day, and long ago told him he could be a leader on the team.
“O.J.’s been nothing but an inspiration to me,” Levine told the crowd at the race start line. “He’s always been that guy that always encouraged me.”
“O.J. means a lot to us,” Johnson said.
Most people diagnosed with ALS are expected to live perhaps a few years, as the neurodegenerative disease attacks motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, compromising muscle function. Only about one in 10 ALS patients is expected to live a decade or longer.
After being told he wouldn’t live past age 40, Brigance will turn 50 in September.
Amid post-race festivities Sunday, Brigance was asked what he hoped people would take away from the event. His answer: “The spirit of resiliency, no matter what.”