BALTIMORE — Former Baltimore linebacker O.J. Brigance continues to inspire the Ravens with his toughness and leadership.
Only now, he's doing it while battling Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
Brigance was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, in 2007. Since that time, the 12-year pro has been a source of motivation within the Ravens organization and a key figure in the quest to find a cure for the devastating disease.
Although confined to a wheelchair and forced to use a communication device that translates his thoughts, Brigance performs capably as senior advisor to player development for the Ravens. HIs job requires him to assist the athletes in all phases of their careers.
Linebacker Ray Lewis, the undisputed team leader, is a frequent visitor to Brigance's office.
"Every day I walk by, not just to tell him how much I love him, but I tell him that he is the one thing that lets me not complain about anything," Lewis said. "I played with that guy. Now to see him in the situation he is in physically, but his brain is probably as sharp as ever, it clicks you back in. His spirit is just awesome."
Playing alongside Lewis on the 2000 Super Bowl champions and starring on special teams readied Brigance for his current, far more important endeavor.
"I do believe that playing football has prepared me for my battle against ALS," he said. "Many people think football is all about strength and physical ability. While these are integral parts of one's success, the fortitude, discipline and the desire necessary to play the sport are characteristics that are readily transferable to everyday life."
Brigance's influence stretches beyond the confines of the Ravens training facility. He and his wife, Chanda, formed the Brigance Brigade Foundation, which strives to improve the quality of life for those afflicted with ALS. The Brigade also funds research to find a cure of the disease.
Before leading the fight against ALS, the couple first had to overcome the shock of the initial diagnosis.
"I do have to be honest. That was not our first instinct," Chanda said. "It blew us back because of our faith. But God never makes a mistake. So we decided that we can use this as a platform. It's an unfortunate platform, but it's what we're given. Him being a professional athlete, we can get the attention of others."
O.J. Brigance said he didn't set out to be an example of how to live life under difficult circumstances.
"I have found that when adversity strikes, there is a decision to be made. We chose to respond and continue to live, and also help others living with ALS to respond also," he said. "We have found that we have been a great encouragement not only to those within the ALS community, but to people in all walks of life."
Baltimore running back Ray Rice is among those players who have been touched by Brigance's heroic stand against the disease.
"Whenever you see O.J., it's not even a thought to complain about anything you've gone through in life," Rice said. "You see him, and you just want to keep on going and strive to overcome any and every obstacle. He's been like our guardian angel."
Brigance is the only player to win a Canadian Football League title and a Super Bowl championship for a team in the same city, Baltimore. He loved being a football player, but knows what he's doing now if far more significant.
"While winning CFL and NFL championships are great personal remembrances, I wouldn't say any of these events define me," he said. "Rather, they are part of an accumulation of life events which catapulted me to do that God wanted me to accomplish. If you were to remove any of those events, I wouldn't be the same person or have the position of influence. With that being said, I consider the Brigance Brigade to be the most significant achievement of my life of because of my ability to touch the lives of others."
Brigance turns 43 on Saturday. He puts no limit on the number of birthdays he will mark in the future.
"I was considered too small, but was able to achieve a 12-year professional football career. I wasn't supposed to come back from my back surgery in 1999, but I recovered in a remarkable time frame and was able to play three more seasons," Brigance said. "I was diagnosed with ALS in 2007 and given a two- to five-year life expectancy, but by the grace of God, I will celebrate my 43rd birthday."