Tackling adversity, off the field

The Baltimore Sun

O.J. Brigance remembers the 2001 Super Bowl like it was yesterday, when he charged down the field for the Ravens and collided with a kick returner for the first tackle of the game.

Now, everyday activities like eating are as challenging as his old workouts. Picking up a fork these days feels like lifting more than a hundred pounds of weights.

Brigance, 38, was diagnosed in May 2007 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive and fatal disease that shuts down nerve cells responsible for movement.

The body that allowed Brigance to compete at football's highest level is betraying him.

Brigance needs to be driven to work because he can't lift his arms. He needs to sit on the bed to put on his pants because he loses his balance. And he needs his wife to button his shirt because he doesn't have the same dexterity with his hands.

"I can see where you can fold up the tent," said Brigance, the Ravens' director of player development. "To be totally honest, I'm not always upbeat. It's tough. But I've always believed that we're able to overcome more than what we think."

Brigance will be honored tomorrow at the Ed Block Courage Awards, receiving the Johnny Unitas Tops in Courage Award for battling the disease with the same willpower he used to fight his way into the NFL. In 1996, he was rejected by 28 of 30 NFL teams when he called for a tryout, but ultimately had a seven-year career.

About 5,600 people in the United States are diagnosed with ALS each year, a disease that generally paralyzes muscles and the lungs, often causing suffocation, but doesn't impair the brain or any of the senses. There is no known cure, and most die within five years of being diagnosed.

Brigance could have chosen to walk away from his job and handle his ordeal privately. A former special teams standout who prided himself on outworking current Ravens in the weight room, Brigance knows he is a shadow of the overachieving player who played on winning teams in the 2001 Super Bowl and the Canadian Football League's 1995 Grey Cup in Baltimore.

His rippled muscles have disintegrated and his arms sag to the side of his body. His fingers can no longer wrap around a football, much less give a firm handshake.

But Brigance has dedicated himself to be a guiding hand to the Ravens' players, preaching to them that adversity makes you stronger.

"No one has beaten this thing, but I am going to be the one who does," Brigance told the players before the season began. "They're going to find a cure."

Despite the effects of ALS, Brigance has continued work that has become a standard of excellence around the NFL. As director of player development, Brigance assists players with each phase of their careers, including after their playing days are over. He also provides young players, especially rookies, with life skills programs to help them grow off the field.

The league's player development office has recognized Brigance as having the best overall program for the past two seasons as well as the best internship program in 2005.

Brigance's influence will now be felt outside the Ravens locker room.

Known for his gentlemanly way and ever-present smile, Brigance has become the ALS Ambassador for the Packard Center, the research center for the disease at the Johns Hopkins University. He is honorary chairman for the center's May 3 race in Baltimore, a fundraising effort for ALS research.

Brigance has also set up his own foundation, the Brigance Brigade, to create more awareness about the disease.

"I think we can all learn something from O.J.," said linebacker Bart Scott, who pointed out that he wears Brigance's number, 57. "If I can be half the man, player and husband he is, I think I will accomplish a lot in my life."


Brigance only wanted to play football.

It was hard for him to think anything else, especially when his mom gave him the name Orenthial James - a minor variation of the spelling of Orenthal James Simpson - in honor of her favorite sports hero.

To ultimately achieve his dream of playing in the NFL after being a three-year starter at Rice University, the Houston native had to rely on patience (a five-year journey in the CFL that took him from British Columbia to the Baltimore Stallions) and perseverance.

"Many people doubted that I could play, being smaller," said Brigance, who was a 6-foot, 236-pound linebacker. "So, I've always had that chip on my shoulder because I was going to show them, I was going to prove them wrong."

Brigance spent four seasons with the Miami Dolphins, where he was voted team captain twice. He then came back to Baltimore to play for the Ravens, winning the Super Bowl in January 2001. In the Ravens' 34-7 rout of the New York Giants, Brigance had five tackles on special teams.

"O.J. was never one of those guys who was overly talented as a football player," said offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. "But he was so dedicated and professional about his job. If everybody approached the game like he did, we would have a lot of great players."

Another passion

In the grand picture of the NFL, Brigance was just a speck as a player, a special teams standout who never made millions nor became a household name.

Brigance's impact has repeatedly been felt more in the locker room than on the field, colleagues say.

Even as a player, Brigance was the one teammates came to, whether it was an issue with their family, a girlfriend or depression. They knew that Brigance wouldn't give them the answer they wanted to hear but the answer they needed to hear.

After Brigance's career ended in 2003, he contacted Brian Billick, who told him that the Ravens were looking for someone to replace Earnest Byner as the team's director of player development.

It became a perfect fit.

"It's not a job for him, because it's something he loves," said his wife, Chanda, who has been married to Brigance for 13 years. "Just like football, this is another passion for him."

In Brigance's time with the Ravens, the team has averaged 10 to 15 internships a year. About five players return to take classes, with one to two graduating each year.

"The things that O.J. does are really priceless," said linebacker Terrell Suggs. "He was one of the driving forces to getting me to go back to school."

'I'm not afraid'

Brigance knew there was something wrong when he played racquetball one day.

There was a pain in his right shoulder that didn't allow him to hit the ball with the same velocity. He thought it could be his rotator cuff, but he soon learned that it was far worse.

A devout Christian since his sophomore year in college, Brigance has relied heavily on his faith.

His other inspiration comes from a saying given to him by former teammate Harry Swayne, which is written on a board inside his office:

A man with an outstanding attitude makes the most of it while he gets the worst of it.

Brigance tries to do everything himself, never asking for help.

"In his heart, he knows he will be the victor," his wife said.

The Ravens have hired Swayne as an assistant, although Brigance expects to handle the same workload this year.

Brigance wants to continue counseling players and hosting a television show for the team.

He wants his life, as well as his message, to remain the same.

"I want to let everyone know I'm not afraid," Brigance said. "I've been up against so many challenges, and this is another one. I'm not going to bow down to it."


Facts on ALS


Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known as "Lou Gehrig's disease," is a fatal disorder that affects the function of nerves and muscles. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.


ALS occurs throughout the world with no racial, ethnic or socioeconomic boundaries. It is estimated that as many as 30,000 Americans have the disease at any given time. Most people who develop ALS are between the ages of 40 and 70, with an average age of 55 at the time of diagnosis.


There is no known cure. The life expectancy of an ALS patient averages about two to five years from the time of diagnosis.

[ Source: ALS Association]

O.J. Brigance

Age/hometown: 38 / Houston

Title: Director of player development (2004-present). Received NFL's Winston/Shell Award in 2005, which is given to the player development director who demonstrates commitment and dedication in developing unique and innovative ideas.

CFL career: Played three seasons (1991-1993) with the B.C. Lions and was named all-conference linebacker. He spent his final two seasons in the league with the Baltimore Stallions (1994-1995), winning the Grey Cup in 1995.

NFL career: Was a special teams standout for the Miami Dolphins (1996-1999), voted team captain twice. He was the team's Ed Block Courage Award recipient in 1999 after returning from a severe back injury. Played one season with the Ravens, winning a Super Bowl in 2001. He led the team with 10 special teams tackles in the postseason. Finished his career with the St. Louis Rams (2001-2002).

College: Three-year starter at linebacker at Rice University, where he graduated with a degree in managerial studies.

Personal: Married to wife, Chanda, for 13 years. Is forming Brigance's Brigade, a foundation dedicated to helping the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known as "Lou Gehrig's disease." He will serve as ALS Ambassador for the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins.

For more information about ALS and charitable donations, contact the Robert Packard Center at Johns Hopkins (www.alscenter.org) or the Brigance Brigade (410-332-4171).

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