Brigance battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, recognized for courage

Street Talk Brigance battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, recognized for courage

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OWINGS MILLS — Inside his office at the Baltimore Ravens’ training complex Tuesday morning, O.J. Brigance swivels in his chair to gaze at an inspirational message jotted down on a chalkboard.

Brigance smiles as he reads aloud a single sentence that encapsulates his approach toward battling an undefeated, cruel opponent.

"A man with an outstanding attitude makes the most of it while he gets the worst of it," is how the saying goes.

It’s a reminder from Brigance’s friend and former teammate, Harry Swayne, for how to persevere through a great adversity.

As Brigance copes with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an often-fatal illness commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease that systematically shuts down the nerve cells and muscles that control movement, the Ravens’ director of player development has vowed that he’ll achieve an unprecedented victory.

No cure has been discovered yet for ALS, which ultimately causes paralysis of the muscles and lungs while sparing the brain and sensory use. Medical research indicates that the average life expectancy for patients once diagnosed ranges between two to five years, and the most common cause of death is suffocation.

Even as the 38-year-old former Ravens linebacker’s body has deteriorated since being diagnosed in May 2007, his will remains as formidable as the once-muscular frame he used to smash into fullbacks and blocking wedges during his playing days.

"My conviction comes from understanding that the only things that are impossible are what we put limitations on," Brigance said. "Once upon a time, they believed the world was flat. Once upon a time, people believed that many diseases would not be cured, but they have been cured. Men persevered through that because they have faith and never gave up.

"Nothing is impossible with God, that’s one thing I’ve come to realize. My wife encouraged me and I’ve been blessed to have people constantly encourage me to be strong. I thought, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I be healed?’"

Brigance was honored Tuesday night at the Ed Block Courage awards banquet at Martin’s West, where he was recognized with the Johnny Unitas Tops in Courage award for his determination in combating this progressive illness.

The award was once given to the late Carolina Panthers linebacker Sam Mills, and it’s a testament to how Brigance has continued to act as a trusted advisor for players while dealing with ALS.

"O.J.’s battle is touching," said Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle, the team’s Ed Block Courage award recipient for how he dealt with his bout with epilepsy last season. "To see him go through his situation every day, you just have to salute and truly honor him.

"He never complains. He’s always upbeat. There’s no fussing, no whining. He’s the model of what you want to be as a man."

Brigance hasn’t given into doubt or sadness despite the debilitating effects of the disease.

Once able to compete with the players in the weight room even after his retirement, Brigance’s days of hoisting heavy metal and a bulky 236-pound physique are behind him.

Now, Brigance is driven to work because he can no longer extend his arms high enough to grip the steering wheel. His wife, Chanda, buttons his dress shirts because of decreased dexterity in hands that used to deliver a firm handshake.

Even swiping an ATM card is a challenge because of bank machines’ height.

"My wife is awesome, she’s such a strong woman of faith and such an inspiration to me," Brigance said. "She has never wavered in believing that I will be healed. Sometimes, she tests me and says, ‘Do it yourself.’ She gives me that old tough love. She’s the reason I’m able to keep fighting."

Physical obstacles haven’t halted Brigance in his mission to assist players in returning to school to earn degrees or in arranging internships or offseason jobs to aid their transition to life after football.

Although he no longer can type on his computer, Brigance uses voice-recognition software to write e-mails and draft letters.

"It’s amazing what technology allows me to do in today’s age," he said. "There are some limitations, but I’ve learned to adapt and find ways to get things done. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. You just have to be creative."

Brigance went for a checkup last year after noticing weakness and recurring pain in his shoulder while playing racquetball.

Over the previous year, Brigance had been troubled by not having his usual energy.

"You just know when your body isn’t acting right," he said. "Once we narrowed it down, it was more a process of elimination."

After Brigance was diagnosed with ALS, he quickly informed the Ravens’ organization and held a meeting with players, whose locker room is a short distance from his office.

He wanted to foster awareness about what he was going through and assure them that he wouldn’t stop helping them or acting as their confidante for personal issues.

"I wanted them to know that I would not stop fighting for them and I would not stop living simply because of this diagnosis, that I would continue to serve them in whatever way that I can," said Brigance, who has been been awarded twice by the NFL for having the top overall player development program and for having the best internship program in 2005. "My heart and my passion for these men and their maturity and growth, that’s not going to stop."

Brigance emphasized to the players that no one has ever beaten ALS, but said that wouldn’t discourage him from trying.

"But I am going to be the one who does," he said. "They’re going to find a cure."

After delivering that powerful message, Brigance made a simple request.

"I asked them, ‘Don’t treat me any differently than you have before,’" Brigance said. "If you see me having an issue with something or needing help, come alongside and help. There’s no need to say anything and let’s just move on.

"It’s similar to a battlefield. If one of your fellow soldiers goes down, you pick him up and keep advancing. The guys have responded tremendously. The compassion they have shown has really blessed me."

Brigance’s heart is as big as his native Texas, and he’s needed that quality all his life. Especially in beating the odds to forge a niche in the elite NFL world.

When Brigance began his career in the Canadian Footbal League after a standout career at Rice, 28 out of 30 NFL teams rejected his request for a tryout.

However, Brigance went on to earn a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens as he recorded a tackle on the opening kickoff in a dominant victory over the New York Giants. 

Brigance was named a captain twice during his four years with the Miami Dolphins. And he won a Grey Cup championship in the CFL with the Baltimore Stallions in 1995.

"Many people said I would never make it in professional athletics, but I was able to get that done after hearing 28 ‘no’s’ before I finally got a ‘yes’," Brigance said. "Many people would have given up after the first or second no. I was at that point, but my wife encouraged me. She said, ‘If you want it, you have to go after it.’"

Brigance has embraced his fight with ALS in a similar aggressive, upbeat manner. Instead of going through his ordeal privately, Brigance chose to speak out.

He has partnered with Johns Hopkins University, joining them as an ALS ambassador for the Packard Center. He’s also an honorary chairman for a May 3 race to raise funds for ALS research.

"It was a natural fit for me to put my name behind them as they try to find a cure," Brigance said. "It’s not only about me. It’s not just O.J. Brigance. It’s about all the people who may have not had a platform or the opportunity that I have to help fight this disease. It’s about everyone that’s dealing with ALS so valiantly."

Brigance has no regrets about deciding to continue working and receives assistance from Swayne, a former teammate. He plans to continue hosting a television show for the team.

His Christian faith has been a constant source of strength for Brigance.

"There’s scripture that talks about being happy when you go through various trials because those trials produce perseverance," Brigance said. "It’s all about living each day to the fullest to show that God is capable of doing all things and all things through me. Many people look at this disease and say, ‘That’s sad, that’s a shame,’ but I’m excited about it because I understand that I’ve been entrusted with this to raise awareness.

"Knowing that it sounds twisted, but I have been chosen because I believe God trusts the way I’ll handle the situation with courage, with faith, with unending and undying support and love of him and belief that he will heal me."

The natural reaction for most people stricken with such a serious disease is to ask a question: Why me?

For Brigance, doubt and self-pity are two emotions he refuses to be associated with as he takes on his toughest opponent yet.

"I don’t have those feelings," he said. "Initially, that question tried to creep into my mind. But if you ask the wrong question, you’ll get the wrong answer. ‘Why’ is not the right question. ‘What can I do’ is the right question. I don’t know even if I got the answer to the ‘why’ question that it would satisfy me or what it would accomplish.

"I’ve had the opportunity to see what the lives of people with disabilities are like, and I would have never gained that perspective if I had not gone through this. It has given me a greater compassion. Now, I look at them and I wonder what they’re dealing with."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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Aaron Wilson

About Aaron Wilson

Aaron Wilson covers the NFL for National Football Post as well as the Baltimore Ravens for The Carroll County Times and He has previously covered the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans and has covered the NFL since 1997.  He has won several regional writing awards, including, most recently, Best Sports News Story for the state of Maryland in voting conducted by the Associated Press managing editors. 

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