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With no voice, Brigance continues to spread his message

Ravens executive has lost most movement to ALS, but continues to hope for a cure

By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

4:50 PM PDT, September 13, 2011

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Each week, we bring you a Q&A with a Ravens player, coach or team executive to help you learn a little more about the team. Today's guest is O.J. Brigance.

O.J. Brigance sits at a table in Sullivan's Steakhouse, speaking with his eyes.

Brigance suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease, which has robbed the former Raven of both speech and body movement. Brigance converses via a high-tech device called a DynaVox, which allows him to "talk" by focusing on a computer screen, and blinking, to form words and sentences.

Brigance, the Ravens' director of player development, was stricken with ALS in 2007 and has dedicated his life to finding a cure for the disease, the life expectancy for which averages two to five years. His organization, Brigance Brigade, has raised over $500,000 with the help of the Packard Center (at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.)

A onetime linebacker and special teams' standout who starred in the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl victory, he is the only pro player ever to win both Canadian and National Football League championships in the same city. Brigance, who will be 42 this month, earned a Grey Cup ring with the Baltimore Stallions in 1995.

In his wheelchair, in the restaurant, he is flanked by caretakers, who monitor his vital signs, and his wife, Chanda. Brigance greets a reporter with a broad grin, one of the few movements he can still muster.

Technology is a wonderful thing – you're able to communicate just by moving your eyes – but how difficult has it really been to continue your mission without speaking verbally?

I have been able to communicate well with my DynaVox, even with the loss of my voice. The only frustration is the inability to communicate real time and conversations. By the time I finish typing, the topic may have changed, so it requires patience. With that being said, praise God I can still audibly communicate.

My inability to speak hasn't affected my mission, because a picture is worth a thousand words. I just have to provide the caption every now and then.

Do people who've been diagnosed with ALS come to you for support and, if so, what advice do you give them?

I have had the opportunity to speak with other ALS patients. My encouragement to them is: Don't stop living in spite of people and circumstances telling you to accept your condition and go peacefully. I find when I speak to others that I am encouraged. Proverbs says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." Our trials come to mold us, and encourage those going through similar trials.

What's your opinion of the new safety measures included in the NFL collective bargaining agreement, i.e., no more two-a-days, less full contact drills at practice, etc?

My opinion of the new safety rules in the CBA are mixed. I am pleased that the health and safety of the players has been moved to the forefront.

What was your relationship with former Baltimore Colt and Hall of Famer John Mackey, who died in July of frontotemporal dementia, and how can you compare your lives? Is Chanda, your wife, your own Sylvia Mackey?

I wasn't fortunate to have known Mr. Mackey, but was blessed to benefit from he and Mrs. Mackey's tenacious efforts to advance the rights of players, both on and off the field. The "88 plan" is one example of the fruits of their labor. I think our lives parallel, in that we were blessed to have the opportunity to do what we love to do and to help others through our personal adversities. We were both divinely matched to extraordinary women who have the level of strength tailor-made for anything that would come up in our lives. My queen bee, and Mrs. Mackey, are unique and splendid in their own right.

What is still on your bucket list to do, both personally and professionally?

I have not written my bucket list, but as I think about it, I would like to go to Africa on safari, see Mount Rushmore, and write a book.

How often do you go to work? Do you attend Ravens' practices and games?

I go in to the facility four to five days a week now. During the off-season, it may be less frequent. Barring any unforeseen issues, I try to catch every practice and attend every home game. I enjoy watching the players take what they learned in practice and execute it on game day.

Have you received any speeding tickets for zipping down hallways in The Castle (the Ravens' headquarters in Owings Mills) in your wheelchair? How fast can you drive that thing?

I have not received any speeding tickets lately, because I had to give up my keys. The story is, when I had more dexterity in my hands, some people claimed I sped through the halls, endangering the shins and feet of Ravens' employees. One day, practical joker and running backs' coach Wilbert Montgomery posted speed limit signs all over the facility. There was a set speed to go into and out of the cafeteria, and a different speed for cruising open hallways. I opened up the wheelchair one day and got it up to 3.7 mph, and had to shut her down before she overheated. He (Montgomery) got me pretty good with that one. It was classic.

Ravens' head coach John Harbaugh calls you "the strongest man in the building." Is he right?

Coach Harbaugh may claim that, and I appreciate the compliment, but I would have to defer to the men and women I see at the facility who, despite their apprehensions about seeing me fight this battle before their eyes, still treat me the same. Many people struggle with how to approach or deal with a person with a disability. I had the same uneasiness before I was diagnosed.

Do you think football played a part in your contracting Lou Gehrig's Disease?

It isn't known what causes ALS. It could be one or several factors. Scientists have determined a common gene in familial ALS, which is about 5 percent of the cases. The other 95 percent is called sporadic, and the cause is yet to be determined. People from all walks of life have been diagnosed with ALS.

I don't know if football or environment or diet caused ALS, but I am more concerned about finding a cure.

What, if anything, would the kid from Willowridge High (N.J.) do differently if he had his life to live over?

I would want to change the painful things because no one wants to willingly go through those situations. But without those times, I would not have known perseverance and character. Pruning is not a fun process, but very critical for growth and maturity.

Your whole life has been an uphill climb. People said you were too small to play linebacker, that Rice University football was a joke, that even as a Canadian Football League standout you'd never be good enough to play in the NFL, and that you'd never recover from the back injuries you suffered while playing in Miami. Did those issues help to prepare you for this?

Wait a minute. Who said Rice football was a joke? We went 9-34 over my career there They say losing builds character, and we had more than our fair share. One of my college coaches met with me my senior year, and said I had a good career, and that I should take my degree and enter the work force. I politely declined his offer and was blessed with a 12-year professional career. Every one of the moments you listed were opportunities for me to believe God's destiny, or accept man's limitations.

Do you still wear your Super Bowl and Grey Cup rings?

I do not wear them except for special occasions. They serve as remembrances of God's faithfulness whenever I see them.

Have you grown, as a person, in these last few years?

The last few years have shown me shortcomings and relationships that I had not cared for properly while pursuing some of my life goals. Time is the one thing that is not redeemable. Once it is gone, it is gone. We should make the most of every moment in our relationships and life goals.

That's your mantra, isn't it?

Yes.

What goes through your mind when you see video clips of yourself busting the wedge, making a Ravens' special teams' tackle and doing that oddball celebratory dance you used to do?

What goes through my mind is: somebody should give him a Valium, to come down. In all seriousness, I have great pride when I see clips of my athletic career, because God used me to do what some say couldn't be done. In First Corinthians 1:27, "But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things in the world to shame the things which are strong."

You've got those Bible verses down pat, don't you?

Spirit food gives me the strength to press forward.

When you get discouraged, what specific memories, on and off the field, do you recall, to help you bounce back?

When I get discouraged, I remind myself that God will never leave me or forsake me. Every challenge and triumph in my life has prepared me to stand at this moment under the weight of this adversity.

No doubt, ALS has brought clarity and greater purpose to our lives. We are all given a platform and audience to influence, no matter what walk of life we come from. We are seasoned by our adversities to help others experiencing the same difficulties.

How would you describe to the rest of us what it has been like to live these last few years?

I would describe living the last few years as challenging, yet insightful. My wife and I have seen great acts of kindness and disappointments. However. I am most proud that we haven't given up on God, or each other. We have used our trials to try and encourage others.

Do you ever compare life as it is now, to how it might have been?

I do believe that God will help me win this battle, and that I will be made whole. I am winning every day my feet touch the ground. We all need to appreciate the small victories in life, starting with the ability to open our eyes in the morning. It isn't a matter of who is right, but who will I believe. In Proverbs, it says, "So as a man thinks, so is he." In the end, whatever opinion we accept as truth for our lives will become our reality.

You say that, with God's help, you'll beat this disease. Many respect your defiance but say you're in denial. Who is right?

Through life experiences I have learned God is right, and man's finite expectations have no bearing on my healing. I would just classify them as limited.

In 1996, you phoned 28 of the 30 NFL teams before you finally got a tryout with Miami. Is that the kind of last-second, Hail-Mary-pass thinking that you believe is going to cure you now?

The great lesson behind that story is that "no" this time doesn't mean "no" the next time. I called 28 of the 30 teams and received 28 nos. The two teams I didn't call were the Houston Oilers and Miami Dolphins, because they had worked me out, coming out of college. I decided I might as well call the last two teams. and make my rejections a full 30. To my amazement both wanted to sign me. "No" sometimes means "not yet." My hope doesn't rely on the wisdom of man but on the providence of the most high God. My faith is not to "Hail Mary" but to "Hail Jesus."

What does O.J. Brigance want his legacy to be?

I pray my legacy is that I trusted God and made the most of what he entrusted to me. There is still more to be done in me but I thank Jesus I am still in the process.

We know that ALS affects the body and not the mind. Do you often feel trapped inside your head?

I do miss the ability to run and work out. Sometimes I would love to get up and go for a walk, but it isn't possible at this time. I do, at times, feel isolated.

Do you ever dream that you are your old self?

I do dream and see myself walking again, and with all of my senses.

When is the last time that you laughed, and cried?

I actually have good laughs daily. Without the ability to speak, I have become a bit more observant. People are funny about how they approach life.

I have cried twice. Back when I was diagnosed, the weight of the diagnosis and possible outcome was hard to accept. The second time was a few months ago, when it was just one of those tough days.

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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