Ravens’ O.J. Brigance brings a different power to second Super Bowl journey
He was a mighty presence when the Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV, a warrior who busted a wedge to make the first tackle that day and went on to make four more. If current coach John Harbaugh is to be believed, even then he was the toughest man in football.
Today O.J. Brigance has limbs that hang limp, his muscles withered. He can move only his lips and eyes and must use a computer to speak. The team’s director of player engagement is in his fifth year of battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a lethal and incurable illness.
Yet as his second Super Bowl looms, Brigance, 43, appears stronger than ever, and that lifts the title contenders.
“There aren’t enough words to describe what that man means to me and to this team,” punter Sam Koch said. “Just seeing ‘Juice’ here with a smile on his face is inspiring. If I have to choose a word for him, it would be ‘powerful.’”
Analysts point to many factors behind the team’s march to New Orleans — Ray Lewis’ return from injury, a new offensive coordinator, quarterback Joe Flacco’s play. One not to miss is the presence of Brigance, a man whose attitude can make 300-pound linemen reassess what winning and losing mean.
It takes him time to speak. A screen, complete with keyboard, is mounted on his wheelchair. He chooses keys with his eyes, spelling out his ideas one letter at a time. A computer turns it all into spoken words.
His eyes dart side to side, the machinery clicking as he frames his thoughts on second chances.
“Super Bowl XLVII means so much to me,” his machine, the DynaVox, said robotically, “not because of the game but because of the journey it took to get here. That’s where the maturation comes. I predict a Ravens victory, of course. But there is no failure if you have done all you can do.”
Brigance, the Ravens’ honorary captain for their AFC title game against New England, was on the Gillette Stadium field for the coin toss. After they drubbed the Patriots, 28-13, safety Ed Reed handed him a game ball.
As Brigance presented the players their championship trophy, he spoke briefly.
“Congratulations,” he said. “Your resiliency has outlasted your adversity. You are the AFC Champions. You are my mighty men. With God, all things are possible.”
In its own way, adversity has always found Brigance.
Born to teen parents in Houston, Texas, Orienthal James Brigance excelled at football, but at 6 feet was deemed too small to make it. He ended up at Rice University, where his teams went 9-39. He started his pro career in Canada, where he played for the British Columbia Lions and later helped the Baltimore Stallions win that league’s Grey Cup.
The NFL never called. So he called them.
The first 28 NFL teams told him no. He pushed on, seeking the chance to try out. The last two, the Oilers and the Dolphins, showed interest. He ended up playing four years in Miami, two as captain, and dealt so well with a back injury that he won an Ed Block Courage Award.
When the Ravens added Brigance in 2000, he impressed mainly with his attitude.
“O.J. was never one of those guys who was overly talented,” offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden told the Sun in 2008, “but he was so dedicated and professional about his job. If everybody approached the game like he did, we would have a lot of great players.”
The special-teams captain that year, Brigance still had 25 tackles as the team rolled to its first Super Bowl. He retired two years later, after 12 years in professional football.
There’s a saying on the board in Brigance’s office at the Ravens’ Owings Mills training complex. “A man with an outstanding attitude makes the most of it while he gets the worst of it.”
Life had always taught him that, but it took a while to see what “the worst” might mean.
In 2003, head coach Brian Billick hired him back to Baltimore as player development director. He was to educate players about off-field matters such as finance and career planning. The NFL named him best in the field twice.
One day in 2007, though, he was playing racquetball at the complex when he felt weakness in a shoulder. In time, he felt the same thing in other places. He checked his symptoms online and saw that Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or ALS, was one possibility.
The disorder weakens and eventually kills the brain’s motor neurons, ending their capacity to send the signals that operate the muscles. It shuts down functions one by one — limb movement, speaking ability, breathing. The average patient lives, at most, five years.
In May, doctors confirmed his worst fears. He and his wife, Chanda, broke down in tears. Football had taught him that the way to bust a wedge was to stay strong and hit hard. This was something else again.
Talk to O.J. Brigance about football or life, and like it or not, he’ll raise the subject dearest to his heart, his Christian faith. Without that, he said — and without Chanda — he’d never have realized the truth that sustains him: His tragedy could be his strength.
His eyes darting side to side as he scans the screen, he summons a quote from 2nd Corinthians he believes could not fit his situation better.
“[God] says, ‘My power is made perfect in weakness,’” Brigance said through his machine. “I have no physical voice, and have atrophied arms and legs, but God has given me a voice and platform to do my greatest work. This significance of moment is not about me. It’s about the thousands of people out there on this same journey I am.”
To the game
No one knows exactly what causes ALS — some evidence suggests a link with head trauma, though it’s inconclusive — and thus far, all doctors can do is try to slow its course. But Brigance’s loss has been the field’s gain.
Not long after his diagnosis, he and Chandra created Brigance Brigade, a foundation that has raised more than $1 million toward research and financial support for sufferers of the disease that will probably kill him.
Brigance, who has outlived most who have ALS, insisted he will be the first to beat it.
Nine years into his second Ravens life, his assistant, Harry Swayne, carries much of his load, but the one Brigance shoulders is plenty. Though he has two nurses to help, it takes four hours to get ready for work in the morning. Yet he’s there about 9:30 every day, shooting players upbeat emails, engaging in off-color banter or speaking at meetings.
Four days before they’re to leave for Louisiana, the players dressed in their wood-paneled locker room. Some evaded the hordes of reporters asking about the 49ers, Lewis’ pending retirement, the Harbaugh Bowl.
Every player asked about Brigance made time to speak.
“If there’s one thing that’s stressed here it’s that we’re going to face adversity,” said kicker Justin Tucker in a nod to the Ravens’ many injuries, three-game losing streak and more. “What matters is what you do with it. If there’s anyone who exemplifies that, it’s O.J.”
“I love and respect O.J. If he can show up here every single day with the energy and excitement and vigor that he has for life, you can show up here on a tough day and do more than just get your job done,” linebacker Brandon Ayanbadejo said.
“Seeing O.J. go through what he does, and handling it so well, reminds you we’re only playing a game,” Flacco said, spinning a ball on his finger.
The team headed for the practice field.
In his office down the hall, Brigance pondered his journey and that of the men he loves.
“The world says seeing is believing, but men of faith say believing is seeing,” he said, his eyes gleaming as he worked the DynaVox.
“I believe that despite my diagnosis, I will walk again,” he said. “This team believes no adverse circumstances will stop them from achieving their goal of being world champions in football and in life. There are no great accomplishments without faith.”