It was a halftime ceremony devoted to the induction of Brian Billick into the Ravens Ring of Honor, but the most poignant moment of the afternoon belonged to one of the players who helped him win the team’s first Super Bowl.
The sellout crowd erupted when O.J. Brigance was introduced, and celebrated his 50th birthday by serenading him with a version of “Happy Birthday” that could surely be heard in the heavens.
Too bad it wasn’t a night game, because O.J.’s smile would have lit up M&T Bank Stadium better than all those hundreds of LED lights that tower over the field.
“That was AMAZING!" O.J. said in an email Tuesday. “To have the entire organization and fan base not only wish me happy birthday, but by the grace of God, acknowledge our ability to endure this hardship was truly amazing. I smiled so broadly because you could literally feel the love and support of the organization and the city of Baltimore.”
There’s no mystery why Brigance is a beloved figure in Baltimore, even though he wasn’t born here and only played that one historic season with the Ravens. He earlier spent two seasons with the Canadian Football League’s Baltimore Stallions, but it has been his heroic battle with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) that has made him an inspiration to the Ravens franchise, the NFL and the community he adopted after his 13-year playing career ended.
He was diagnosed with the disease in 2007 and was given little chance to reach the birthday he celebrated Sunday. But Brigance has done far more than just defy statistical probability. He and his wife, Chanda, have turned his fight into a much larger mission through the Brigance Brigade Foundation, which raises funds to help victims and their families deal with the impact of ALS on their lives.
“It’s an honor to be considered an inspiration, but we began this whole journey to help those that are walking the same journey,” O.J. said. “We have focused on how we can be a blessing to others, instead of focusing purely on what is happening with us. The opportunity to establish a lasting legacy of hope is something that we are very proud of. One of our greatest joys comes when someone shares how our actions or words have encouraged them in their lives.”
So, last weekend was a very busy one. The foundation held its fifth annual “Soiree with O.J.” on Friday night at the Valley Mansion by Martin’s in Cockeysville. And O.J. and Chanda watch each home game from the press box at M&T Bank Stadium, though they spent part of Sunday’s game preparing to take part in Billick’s halftime ceremony.
Brigance continues to contribute to the Ravens organization as senior adviser for player development with an office at the Under Armour Performance Center.
“I can’t say enough about the Ravens and their organization,” Chanda said in the same email exchange. “I also cannot say enough about the city of Baltimore. The city of Baltimore has been and is a source of support for both O.J. and me. The fans singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to O.J. was so heartfelt for both O.J. and I. I stand in amazement and wonder how in the world we could ever repay the love the city has given us.”
Clearly, 50 is not just a number to the Brigances. It represents a repository of milestones and moments that make life worth living, even under circumstances many of us could not even imagine.
“Turning 50, there’s a tremendous sense of gratitude for all of the little life moments," O.J. said, "like celebrating 25 years of marriage, seeing my niece graduate from college and another niece start high school. These and so many other moments I would have missed if I would have given up on life. So yes, in a word, grateful! I am blessed to have a team around me that allows me to remain impactful beyond the limitations. Each day is a gift to be lived out with purpose. Every day that God opens my eyes, I know that there’s something he wants me to accomplish.”
O.J’s 1,000-watt smile is not a rare occurrence. Brigance and his wife decided soon after O.J.’s diagnosis that they would let their strong faith guide them through a journey that has allowed them to make a heartbreaking situation serve a much greater purpose.
The foundation’s mission statement describes the day they came to grips with the terrifying news:
“They fell to their knees in the kitchen of the home they share and wept together as they were racked with uncertainty. Through their faith, O.J. and Chanda knew they would be OK and their attention turned to others in need. The Brigances chose to be a beacon of light for those affected — to show you can remain positive, continue to love and continue to feel the blessings of the life you were given, no matter the circumstances.”
The couple has lived that statement for the past 12 years and it would be hard to adequately quantify the impact that has had on those who have directly benefited from the work of the Brigance Brigade Foundation and the people who come in daily contact with the Brigances.
“Making an impact in the community through the Brigance Brigade Foundation is one of the things that make enduring this horrible disease worthwhile,” O.J. said. “We have been able to provide in-home nursing care and medical equipment co-pays for numerous families. We also provide resource guidance, which is critically important during the early stages of the diagnosis. We have also built wheelchair ramps on people’s homes to allow them to get outside. I am proud that our organization can provide financial assistance and serve as a source of hope to those living with ALS!”
It’s also important to note that their commitment to community did not start on the day they found out O.J. had ALS. During the four seasons he played in Miami before returning to Baltimore for the 2000 season, he worked for and contributed to several charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Daily Food Bank, and was honored by the NFL Players Association with its “Unsung Hero Award.”
“Bringing awareness to ALS is extremely important!” Chanda said. “And the more our PALS [People with ALS] know that the community is walking this battle and is on this battlefield with them, the more everyone will know that there is strength in numbers.”