O.J. Brigance grew up in Houston dreaming of being a professional ball player, living the life of luxury and doing the only thing he’d ever want to do — play football.
To no one’s surprise, he did, coming on the professional football scene like a hard-charging linebacker chasing a quarterback. Eventually, he had a 12-year career, going from an undrafted free agent from Rice University to a Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000.
Brigance, 43, is a perfect example that dreams can, indeed, come true.
He’s also an example that dreams can change.
Now, he has his sights set on beating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). And defeat it big — perhaps even being the first person to conquer the disease that currently has no cure.
“All things are possible with God,” says Brigance, now a senior adviser to player development for the Ravens, who were again Super Bowl champions in 2013. “Just because a thing hasn’t been done yet can’t shake our faith that it won’t be done. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.”
ALS may have slowly taken away the use of his arms, his legs and his voice, but it didn’t take away his vision of a future. And it clearly hasn’t taken away his courage or his will to win.
But there are things he’d like everyone to know about ALS and himself.
“ALS affects people from all races, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds,” he said. “It is a devastating adversary. The toughest thing for people to understand about ALS is that I am still the same person and still have all my mental capacities. I can recognize you, so you don’t have to introduce yourself every time I see you.
I just can’t talk or move. And, oh, I am not deaf, so no need to scream. I can hear just fine.”
So, yes, he does have a sense of humor to go with that football toughness. And, he also has a huge heart. It’s what friends and family measure him by ... and nothing else.
Grit and guts
“You never really wanted to go up against O.J.,” says friend Donald Bowers, a former teammate at Rice University in Houston. “If you were in a drill and you faced him, you pretty much counted that as a loss. He was just so much quicker and had a lot of determination.”
More than two decades after his days at Rice, Brigance’s grit and guts haven’t waned. He thanks a variety of sources: his wife, Chanda; his friends; his love of football; being a competitor; and his faith.
With Chanda, he has created the Brigance Brigade Foundation to help equip, encourage and empower people living with ALS.
“My fortitude and strength comes from my relationship with Jesus Christ,” says Brigance, who stays mobile with the use a power wheelchair and who responded to questions via email for this story.
“Each stage in life serves as a stepping stone for the next. There are never mistakes in life, but learning opportunities. As we go through life’s adversities, they are strengthening us for new triumphs and challenges to come. Our faith in Jesus Christ has allowed my wife and I to keep a singular focus, no matter what comes our way.
“One of my favorite sayings is, ‘life is a lot like school — there is never promotion without testing.’”
Inspiring a team to greatness
There have been plenty of tests since that summer day in 2007 when doctors gave Brigance a diagnosis of ALS. He was told he would have between three to five years to live — the same statistic given each year to the more than 5,000 Americans receiving ALS diagnoses. But he’s already beaten those numbers.
Brigance often says there is a “purpose behind his pain,” and that individuals can find inner strength if they search for it.
“I’ve learned through my diagnosis that each day is truly a gift from God,” he says. “I have a great appreciation for the sunrise and the beginning of a brand new day. Many times we make assumptions about life that we can’t control. Enjoy the day, this moment because you never know what tomorrow will bring.”
In 2012 and 2013, Brigance’s attitude helped the Ravens do what had seemed so improbable before — make a great regular season finish and an even more impressive run to a title, knocking off New England in the American Football Conference (AFC) championship and San Francisco in the Super Bowl. Each game they were underdogs. Brigance doesn’t identify with that word.
“Our strength is made perfect in our greatest weakness,” Baltimore Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh told the media during his team’s run to the title. “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,” Harbaugh added.
Brigance has been described as “powerful” by his teammates. He conveys it with deeds and words. Although ALS has taken Brigance’s ability to speak and to use his arms and his legs, he moves people emotionally. As Bowers says, “Every word has a purpose.”
The Ravens organization doesn’t look at “the disease that stripped him but rather at the mind [he has],” Qadry Ismail told the New York newspaper Newsday. Ismail, a former football wide receiver, is the Ravens’ radio color analyst and Brigance’s good friend. “[He’s] the same man of character I met at the Bible study in Miami [years before], just as consistent as can be. I love him for it. I really do.”
That’s the overwhelming consensus from everyone. But it’s been that way for most — if not all — of Brigance’s life, and clearly, throughout his football days.
‘We encourage each other to keep fighting’
Friend and former Rice teammate Matt Sign says he remembers a “leader” and player “you wanted to emulate.”
“When he walked into the huddle, he owned it,” says Sign, now the chief operating officer of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. “He treated everyone the same. All he asked for was your best every single game.”
|O.J. and Chanda Brigance|
Sign credits Brigance’s leadership in guiding Rice to its first winning season in 1992. It was the school’s first in 30 years. And by then, Brigance had already graduated.
“It was his leadership that began to change the culture of Rice football and what the program could ultimately be,” Sign says. “He expected a lot, and he gave a lot. He was an inspiration at Rice, and he’s obviously one today.”
Rice since has created an award in his name, “The O. J. Brigance Courage Award,” given to a Rice University football player who best represents and demonstrates his qualities of teamwork, good character, work ethic and courageous leadership.
“Our society sure could use more O.J. Brigances,” Sign says.
His personal story, driven by his philosophy about life and all of the challenges and successes it brings, has helped enrich the lives of others facing challenges in their lives too.
“When I speak to PALS [people with ALS],” Brigance says, “I encourage them to have a positive attitude and outlook each day. We have been given a unique challenge, but we also have been given a unique fortitude to stand up to the challenge. We encourage each other to keep fighting until God says the fight is over.”
Or, until dreams do come true.
“No matter how this all goes, he’s already beaten it,” says his wife, Chanda. “He’s living life with it. He’s already beaten it because of his positive attitude. No matter what tomorrow brings — at the end of the journey, he’s won.”