By Bob Glauber Newsday
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It started with a tingling sensation in his right arm.
O.J. Brigance was playing racquetball at the Ravens’ training facility in the fall of 2007, and he didn’t really think too much of it. He had experienced physical symptoms far worse and far more troubling when he played linebacker for the Ravens, Rams and Dolphins. So he figured he’d give it a few days’ rest and let the problem clear up on its own.
But it never did.
After several more days of tingling and numbness, and at the urging of his wife, Chanda, Brigance saw a doctor. He then was referred to other neurological specialists — four in all — and each came up with the same shocking diagnosis.
Brigance had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal illness commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Doctors said he had three to five years to live.
On Jan. 20, more than five years after being diagnosed, Brigance sat in his wheelchair inside the Ravens’ locker room after they defeated the Patriots, 28-13, in the AFC Championship Game. Then he presented the team the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
No longer able to speak and requiring the use of a ventilator to breathe, Brigance said through a computerized device he uses to communicate, “Congratulations to the Baltimore Ravens. Your resiliency has outlasted your adversity. You are AFC champions. You are my mighty men. With God, all things are possible.”
Afterward, Ravens players and coaches yelled Brigance’s nickname: “Juuuuuuuuuuiiiice!!” He then received their embraces, having reached a part of every member of the organization through his courageous battle.
“O.J.’s been our strength,” said Ravens safety Ed Reed, who presented Brigance the game ball. “O.J. took me under his wing when I first got here and everything he’s been through and is going through, to still be the same O.J. and being a light to you and being a light for our team. He’s been like an uncle to me and like a brother. I love Juice.”
“Every day I came out and told O.J. that you’re my greatest motivation,” said linebacker Ray Lewis, who will be playing his final NFL game Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII against the 49ers.
Brigance, 43, was one of Lewis’ teammates when the Ravens beat the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa and now is the team’s senior adviser to player development, a position he has held since 2004.
Brigance continues to work full-time, regularly interacting with players, coaches and team officials. Not a single member of the organization hasn’t been touched in some way by the former linebacker and special-teams ace.
“Our strength is made perfect in our greatest weakness,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “And here O.J. is, visibly in a weakened physical state yet in an incredibly strong spiritual and intellectual place, and he shows that every day. He’s just a shining light in the building, and we all definitely are energized by that.”
But ask Brigance, and he will tell you that it is the other way around. That it is those around him who give him the will to live.
Sitting in his office Thursday at the team’s training complex in suburban Baltimore, Brigance talked about how uplifting the team has been through his ordeal. Through the steady hum of his ventilator, his hands are motionless on his lap but his eyes and lips still are able to move, and Brigance explains.
“This Ravens Super Bowl run has showed me that if you continue to strive for a singular goal with one unified soul, you can accomplish great feats,” he said. “There will always be critics to try to defeat your dreams. Don’t use them as haters, but stimulators. Super Bowl XLVII means so much to me, not because of the game. It’s the journey it took to get here.
“The journey is where personal growth and maturation comes, and of the stories of the men on this team,” he said. “They have all overcome challenges and adversities to be on this national stage. It makes me extremely proud of them.”
ALS has robbed Brigance of the ability to speak, and he no longer can move his extremities, but his mental and intellectual capacities have not diminished. All he can do physically is blink his eyes and move his lips. And as anyone who knows Brigance will tell you, his smile can light up a room.
Brigance communicates through a computer, made by DynaVox, programmed to type in letters and words by receiving cues from his eyes. Brigance looks to each letter or word on the keyboard, then enters them into the computer. He instructs the computer with his eyes to play his pre-written answer. It often takes him several minutes to compose a single sentence. For this interview, Brigance received the questions hours in advance.
“Juice, that’s my man,” wide receiver Jacoby Jones said. “He’s like another Ray Lewis. He gives us inspiration every time you see him. That’s just all love. We love Juice.”
Brigance — Juice — feels the love. And feeds off it.
“When people say I inspire them, it encourages me to continue to persevere through this light and momentary trouble,” he says.
Yes, he refers to his life-altering situation as “light and momentary.”
“I realize that what I am enduring now is not only for my development but to also be able to help those dealing with the same issues,” he said. “I am blessed to have the opportunity to serve God in this current state.”
Hope and faith
Brigance does not worry about how much longer he has to live. In fact, he continues to believe that he will be able to overcome ALS despite the fact that there is no known cure.
Recent medical research suggests a potential link between playing football and ALS, although the science is not yet a conclusive association between repeated head trauma and the disease. A study published in the journal “Neurology” last September by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that NFL players may be at a higher risk of death associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and other impairments of the brain and nervous system than the general U.S. population.
“I don’t know what caused my ALS,” Brigance said. “My focus is how do we end ALS and how do we improve the quality of life for us all in the meantime.”
Soon after he was diagnosed with the disease, Brigance set up an organization called the Brigance Brigade (BriganceBrigade.org) to help others suffering with the disease.
“We came up with the vision of this because we realized so many others are going through it,” said Chanda Brigance, who has been married to O.J. for 23 years. The couple met at Rice University, where Brigance was a standout linebacker.
“It’s very expensive as far as all the equipment that’s needed. We understand we’ve been blessed to get help, but we said, ‘Hey, how about helping and supporting others who are living with ALS to give them resources to help purchase equipment.’”
Chanda is continually inspired as she watches her husband battle his disease with such strength. But she is not surprised, not after seeing what his reaction was after learning of his illness.
“As anyone would react with a life-threatening disease, you spend your time as in a little bit of sadness,” she said. “You roll on the floor, you cry your tears and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, what am I gonna do?’ But then you dry ‘em up, you stand up, you dust yourself off and say, ‘OK, how are we going to deal with this? You want to fight? You want a challenge? We’re going to give you one, and we’re going to take your head off.’”
While in New Orleans this week, Brigance hopes to meet with another former NFL player suffering from ALS. Former Saints special-teams standout Steve Gleason, whose blocked punt on the night the New Orleans Superdome opened for the first time after Hurricane Katrina was one of the most memorable plays in team history, was diagnosed with the disease in 2011.
Gleason has coined the saying “no white flags” as a way of persevering against the disease.
“Steve Gleason is my fellow warrior, and I love him for that,” Brigance said. “He gets and understands the vision. As he would say, ‘No white flags.’ Steve understands there is purpose behind the pain, and he is all in. He understands the impact we can make, and I look forward to joining him in New Orleans to crush ALS.”
Gleason, who has relied heavily on Brigance’s advice, also is anxious for the get-together.
“I regularly lean on (Brigance) for advice on topics like wheelchairs, diet, maintenance and therapy,” said Gleason, 35, who also communicates through the DynaVox device. His responses to questions were emailed to Newsday.
Gleason is committed to raising ALS awareness, and uses his website — TeamGleason.org — to spread the word.
“ALS is a terminal disease that prevents your brain from communicating with your muscles,” he said. “It leads to paralysis and death. I have it. You have not heard much about ALS because it is under-funded and under-resourced. As a result, most patients are forced to fade quietly and die. O.J. and I and, really, the entire current generation of ALS patients are on a mission to change that.”
Brigance would like nothing more than to see the disease eradicated, and he hopes to partner with Gleason and spread the message.
In the meantime, there is one more piece of football business ahead in New Orleans for the Ravens’ inspirational leader. Does he believe the Ravens have what it takes to beat the 49ers?
No words are necessary for this one.
His smile says all you need to know.