Brigance's battle inspires Ravens

BY Peter Schrager • January 24, 2013

After losing four of the last five games of the 2012 regular season, the Baltimore Ravens now have won three straight playoff games, including two in a row on the road over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. En route to New Orleans and a date with the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, they’ve silenced critics, done the unthinkable and slayed two of the greatest quarterbacks of football’s modern era.

Just don’t call the 2012 Ravens a “team of destiny.”

O.J. Brigance will have none of that.

“I don’t know with all the different events and challenges that we have had this season whether we are a team of destiny, but I will say we are a team of vision,” says Brigance, a former Ravens player and the team’s current senior adviser to player development. “We have faith in the vision we have all seen to be Super Bowl champions.”

Known around the Ravens locker room and team’s facility as “Juice,” Brigance knows a thing or two about having faith in a vision.

In 2007, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. First he lost the use of his arms.

Then he lost his ability to walk.

Then, his ability to talk.

Through it all, though, he’s never lost the ability to inspire and lead.

Bound to a wheelchair and unable to use his voice, he reports to work every day with an upbeat demeanor and the unbreakable confidence in a personal goal.

“I believe, despite my diagnosis, that I will walk again,” he tells me.

When I met with Brigance, 43, on Thursday afternoon at the Ravens team facility, he was in the midst of just another day at the only work address he’s known since joining the Ravens as an executive in 2004.

A step inside his office at 1 Winning Drive is a step into a world of promise and positive energy. Blessed with a smile that could keep even the darkest of times light, Brigance communicates through a high-tech computer device called a DynaVox machine.

Mounted on to his wheelchair, the machine produces a wide range of speech generating devices, allowing Brigance to use eye-targeted movements to speak through a computerized voice. Using his eyes as cues for a database full of messages and potential responses, Brigance has the ability to touch others with his words. He can share his positive outlook.

He can live his life.

Living this life was at one point considered a nearly impossible dream for Brigance. His wife, Chanda, says that when O.J. was first diagnosed with ALS, they were told he had three to five years to live.

Well, it’s been five years since that fateful day, and not only is O.J. Brigance still alive, but he’s still hard at work, doing what he loves.

He’s also serving as a major source of inspiration for the Super Bowl-bound 2012 Ravens.

“Every day I came out and told O.J. that you’re my greatest motivation,” linebacker Ray Lewis said after Sunday’s AFC Championship Game victory.

“What can’t you say about O.J.?” saftey Ed Reed said shortly after Brigance addressed the team via his DynaVox machine in the locker room Sunday night.

“O’J.’s been our strength. 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 be a light for our team. ... He’s been like an uncle to me and like a brother. I love Juice.”

Brigance heard those comments earlier in the week. He smiles when I mention them.

“Those men inspire me,” he says. “They have helped give me a reason to get up and out of the bed every morning. There is a biblical proverb that says, ‘As Iron sharpens Iron, so does one man sharpen another.’ We are making each other better men.”

Long before Lewis hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, Brigance brought a professional football championship trophy back to the city of Baltimore. A star linebacker on the short-lived Baltimore Stallions Canadian Football League team in the early '90s, Brigance hoisted the Grey Cup with his Stallions teammates in 1995.

He was an All-Pro and the city’s face of professional football, a somewhat unlikely bridge between the Colts glory days of Johnny U and the modern day Ravens teams led by Lewis.

After being picked up by the Dolphins and spending four years as a linebacker in Miami, he signed with the Ravens prior to the start of the 2000 season. The captain of the special-teams unit, he was a leader in the locker room for the first Ravens Super Bowl team.

Today, though unable to use his extremities or have his voice heard, he still is that same leader of men that he was when Baltimore played for its Lombardi Trophy.

He insists that it’s the men in this Ravens locker room, however, who’ve served as his motivation in the fight against ALS.

“This Ravens Super Bowl run has shown me that if you continue to strive for one unified goal with one unified soul, you can accomplish great feats,” he says. “There will always be critics who’ll try to deflate your dreams. As Bishop (T.D.) Jakes always says, ‘Don’t view them as haters. View them as stimulators.’ ”

Brigance certainly is living his life to the fullest these days.

Every morning, his nurse picks him up in nearby Reisterstown, They drive in a van to the facility in Owings Mills, and he reports to work. Through his words and his presence, he’s made an indelible impact on this Ravens team. Through his work within the ALS community, he’s made an even greater difference outside of the football world.

His Brigance Brigade organization has been an instrumental player in advancing ALS research and fundraising efforts. Its mission is to “equip, encourage, and empower people living with ALS (PALS) to live their lives.”

“My message to my fellow (PALS) is that life was never promised to be easy,” Brigance said. “Certain assignments have been pleasant, and others have been challenging. Jesus said, ‘In this world, you will have tribulation. But behold, I have overcome the world.’ ”

He continues, “Would I have chosen ALS? No. However, I have been given the opportunity to do my life’s greatest work because I have chosen to fight and impact my circle of influence for God’s greater good despite my circumstances. We all have a circle of influence that we can impact no matter what the circumstances in our respective lives.”

Brigance’s circle of influence gets larger every day. As his story grows from a regional to a national one with every passing week, ALS awareness and fundraising efforts increase.

He’s leading the charge in fighting a disease that impacts over 30,000 American families.

As we wrap up our afternoon in Baltimore, Brigance brings the conversation full-circle, linking his current battle with the one the Ravens have in two Sundays.

“Without faith, no great accomplishment is possible,'' he says. "I believe despite my diagnosis, I will walk again. And this team believes no adverse circumstance will stop them from achieving their goal of being world champions in football and life.”

Brigance then takes a moment, and adds, “We have been the underdogs the last two weeks, and everything has worked out pretty well. We don’t want the favor of Las Vegas. We want the favor of God. We like His odds.”

There will be plenty of different Super Bowl personalities and storylines dissected and profiled in the coming days. But the true heart of the Baltimore Ravens — the one who won a championship in this city long before there even was a Ravens franchise — is O.J. Brigance.

He’s the guiding light for a very special team of vision.