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On the Offense for a Cure
Former linebacker O.J. Brigance tackles Lou Gehrig’s disease with positive thinking and fund-raising.

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Jeff Rothstein, left, shows off O.J. Brigance's Super Bowl ring. Said Rothstein, "We don't let anyone on our team who doesn't have passion."

Growing up in Houston, O.J. Brigance enjoyed playing Little League football—that is, until it became too demanding for him. But when he cried to his parents that he wanted to quit, his father would say, “You wanted this. Now you have to finish it.” His mother was of the same mind.

Eventually, Brigance says he internalized two messages from his parents: first, that when faced with hardship, you must stand firm; second, that once you give your word, you’ve got to follow through. Brigance went on to play college football and then to play for the Canadian Football League and the NFL.

Today, the former Ravens linebacker—credited with the first tackle at the 2001 Super Bowl—says his parents’ advice is never far from his thoughts now that he must tackle everyday tasks like holding a cup or dialing a phone number. One year ago, Brigance, 38, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

His earliest symptoms came to light months earlier, during a racquetball game. He felt his shoulder go weak, then stiff. And when he picked up a football, he recalls, “My dexterity seemed different. I couldn’t throw the ball like I used to.” The progressive, fatal disorder destroys the nerve cells that enable movement.

Yet despite his weakened state, Brigance, now director of player development, arrives at Ravens headquarters in Owings Mills each day eager to do his job, which involves counseling players about getting educational degrees and planning for retirement.

The news of his illness, says Brigance, has stunned players, many of whom confide in him about their own struggles, from family strife to financial worries. And though he says he’s deeply touched every time one of the young men offers to help tie his shoes, Brigance stresses that he doesn’t want to be treated differently. “This diagnosis doesn’t have to be the end of life,” he says. It’s an opportunity for us all to come together to try to find a cure.”

Inspired by the work of the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins, Brigance is honorary chair of the Center’s Fiesta 5K and Fun Run, to be held May 3 at the Inner Harbor. Founded in 2001, the Center—the only one of its kind dedicated to finding therapies to slow or cure ALS—draws from an elite cadre of international scientists who have advanced dozens of research projects. “These researchers collaborate, rather than compete,” says Brigance.

Center Director Jeffrey Rothstein, who confirmed Brigance's diagnosis, was immediately struck by his patient’s can-do outlook. “O.J. demonstrated a fighting spirit on the gridiron, and he’s tackling ALS the same way, with courage and a display of faith and character that are lessons to us all.” Rothstein hopes that Brigance’s football fame will have far-reaching impact for the Center.

Brigance isn’t the first sports celebrity to raise funds and awareness for Center research. Since 2004, sportswriter John Feinstein and golf pro Tom Watson, whose caddy Bruce Edwards died of ALS, have hosted an annual golf tournament, raising millions for Center research. And, in 1995, when Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak, a portion of ticket sales that day— reaching $2 million—were earmarked for ALS research.

Thanks to Brigance’s new role, the Baltimore Ravens have stepped up as a cash sponsor for Fiesta 5K to the tune of $10,000. Brigance and friends, meanwhile, have been raising funds on their own towards the race’s goal of $100,000. The former linebacker has also established the “Brigance Brigade”—a fund through the Baltimore Community Foundation—to raise more money for ALS research and to provide assistive equipment for patients with the disease.

As many as 30,000 Americans are affected by ALS every year. Most patients with the neurodegenerative disease die within five years of diagnosis, but Brigance is optimistic that he will be cured. “The only one who determines the length of life is God,” he says. “You’ve got to believe in the possibility of everything.”

Brigance has spent his career disproving naysayers. His coach at Rice University told him that he’d never play football professionally because he’s too small (at 6 feet tall). Brigance also had a back injury and was told he’d never play again. He recovered and was recruited by the Ravens.

Now he’s hopeful that a cure for his disease will emerge in Charm City. “I know my circumstances might turn bleak,” says Brigance. “But having a serious illness gives you a greater appreciation for how special life is.” And, should a cure materialize, Brigance surely won’t object to becoming an eligible receiver.


—JM

 

 

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