NEW ORLEANS - The road to Super Bowl XXXVI is littered with unlikely success stories and improbable twists, but it's doubtful anyone here appreciates this stage more than the St. Louis Rams' O.J. Brigance.
His personal journey took him to the far reaches of Canada and through Baltimore. He endured rejection from 28 NFL teams before even one would grant him a tryout.
He earned a Super Bowl ring as a special teams ace with the Ravens a year ago, only to become a victim of the salary cap. He signed this season with St. Louis but was cut in training camp.
Now Brigance, 32, finds himself on top again. Recalled at midseason by the Rams to play both linebacker and special teams, he will play a prominent role in tomorrow's game in trying to bring down elusive New England Patriots punt returner Troy Brown.
It's been a whirlwind ride that leaves even Brigance marveling at the twists.
"I think the stamp that's on my career is all things are possible," he said. "I truly believe that. So many people are shaped by their environment. We let what people tell us shape us and determine what we do in our lives.
"There were many people who told me I would never be able to play, that I was too small. But God had a different plan for my life."
God's plan and his wife Chanda's intuition put Brigance on course early in 1996. Brigance had just completed his fifth season in the Canadian Football League, in which his size (6 feet, 236 pounds) was much less a deterrent than in the NFL.
Having just won the Grey Cup with the second-year Stallions, he came home to Baltimore to discover the Cleveland Browns were coming, too. That sent the Stallions to Montreal and left Brigance with an uncertain future.
"In a strange sense, it was good that did happen," he said, "because if I had the opportunity to come back to Baltimore [with the Stallions], I may not have given the NFL a try. It forced my hand to research the NFL again."
But the research began only at his wife's insistence.
"She really challenged me," Brigance said. "She said if this is something you really want, you're going to have to go after it. She urged me to call teams. There was silence in my house for about a week because my pride wouldn't allow me to do that."
He finally relented, got the phone numbers of each of the NFL's 30 teams and, starting with Arizona, went in search of a tryout.
"I started cold-calling. "Hello, my name is O.J. Brigance. I played in the CFL. ... ' " he said. "By Kansas City, my confidence was down. 'No, no, no, sorry, no.' I called team number 28. 'No.' "
The 30th team, the Houston Oilers, also offered a contract. But that was his hometown, and he decided it was better to try Miami.
Brigance not only made the Dolphins, but also lasted four years there. He joined the Ravens last season, where he had a stellar year on special teams, then joined the Rams in June.
He didn't get through August, though. When Rams defensive end Cedric Jones suffered a fractured hip, the team signed free agent Chidi Ahanotu, and Brigance was cut to make salary cap room.
After talking with coach Mike Martz, he opted to stay in St. Louis through September, hoping for a recall. He then went back to Baltimore to pursue some on-camera work with Comcast SportsNet, a job he hopes to turn to when football is finished.
When linebacker Don Davis broke his wrist in November, Brigance got his wish. He rejoined the Rams for their Nov. 18 game in New England, and when linebacker Mark Fields went down, Brigance saw action on defense in three straight games.
Since then, he has become a leader on special teams. Playing in eight games, he had 12 special teams tackles, tied for third on the team. He leads the team in the postseason with seven.
His contribution helped shore up the Rams' weakest link. They have allowed two kickoff-return touchdowns this season.
"O.J. was a tremendous addition to our team," said special teams coach Bobby April. "Not only from the standpoint of his production, but from the standpoint of leadership, or professionalism, of knowledge and of character.
"He's got all the intangibles and he's productive on game day. He's a great, great leader."
Brigance has a unique perspective because of the road he has traveled.
"The CFL allowed me to appreciate every bit of this, right down to the free water that you can go and get out of the ice box, the meals that are laid out, the charter flights," he said. "I appreciate every bit of it.
"Of course I want to win the Super Bowl. But if I don't win, I'm satisfied. So many guys would love to have what I have right now."
St. Louis Rams (16-2) vs. New England Patriots (13-5) What: Super Bowl XXXVI
Where: Superdome, New Orleans
When: Tomorrow, 6:20 p.m.
TV: Chs. 45, 5
Line: Rams by 14