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Baltimore Ravens draw on O.J. Brigance's strength

The former linebacker runs one of the NFL's most envied player development departments, despite suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. He's a daily inspiration to a team that is one win from the Super Bowl.

January 14, 2009|David Steele

The person considered the strongest Baltimore Raven by Coach John Harbaugh received the game ball after Saturday's AFC divisional playoff victory over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, even though he didn't take a snap or put on a uniform.

In the victorious locker room at LP Field, Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed handed the ball to O.J. Brigance, the Ravens' director of player development, saying, "This is for you."

Brigance expressed thanks from the motorized wheelchair that he uses as he battles Lou Gehrig's disease, then added, "But we've got two more to play."

His response echoed his comments before the game to well-wishers in the press box. They told him they hoped that the inspiration he has given the Ravens this season would continue. "Yeah," he said, "then after [this game], do it again two more times."

When the Ravens face the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Sunday for the AFC championship with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Brigance will be there.

When Brigance addresses them, the players say, they feel like they can conquer the world.

"You can hear a pin drop" whenever Brigance speaks, said tight end Todd Heap. "Everybody's talking, then everybody's listening, and all of us take it to heart when he talks."

Brigance's message has remained constant.

"There's something else going on here in our lives; we know that, so all we have to do out there is stay focused and stay true," Reed said of Brigance's talks. "It's bigger than wins and losses; this is about being men, about growing, about playing through whatever."

The players listen to Brigance, 39, because he has bonded strongly with them in his five years of helping them on and off the field.

Brigance says the players haven't treated him any differently since he was diagnosed in May 2007 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which has no cure. In recent weeks, speaking clearly and loudly enough for normal conversation has grown more difficult.

Brigance says he and the players have drawn inspiration from each other.

"It's such an honor to be part of what they are," he said. "It's very rare for a man to allow another man to impart words to him, to open themselves up to another's life, and it's very impressive to me."

Brigance leans on a favorite Bible verse from II Corinthians for understanding the mutual healing that he and the team provide: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness."

"That's something we've learned in a very real way by watching O.J. in this," Harbaugh said, "because he's the strongest man in the building. It's not even close. And you know that once you get to know him; he's pure strength."

A pro football player for 12 years, including a Super Bowl championship as a Raven in 2000, Brigance first spoke about the disease with the Baltimore Sun last March. Since then, he has helped local and national organizations raise money to combat ALS.

The entire Ravens organization showed up for an ALS charity run in May, and Brigance said he plans to be the race's honorary chairman again this year. Last month's reunion of the Baltimore Colts' 1958 NFL championship team was turned into a benefit for his charitable foundation, Brigance's Brigade, and for the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins University.

About 5,600 people in the United States are diagnosed each year with ALS, a disease that can lead to paralysis of muscles and the lungs but does not impair the brain, according to the ALS Assn. Most ALS patients die within five years.

Brigance, a former linebacker, has seen his muscles wither and his need for assistance grow. But he hasn't given up his job, and he hasn't stopped fighting.

"When you see what O.J. is going through, and see that he has a healthy attitude about it -- he's still joking, laughing around everybody -- you really appreciate what he's going through," said Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason. "And you figure, 'What we're going through is not that tough. If we can't fight our way out of whatever we're going through, then what are we doing?' "

Early in the Dallas game Dec. 20, Mason aggravated a shoulder injury but returned to play a key role in a crucial Ravens win. Afterward, the first person Harbaugh thanked publicly was Brigance, who was smiling wider than anyone else in the locker room.

Besides staying connected to the players ("He's been at every meeting," Harbaugh said) and running his foundation -- aided by his wife, Chanda, who was at his side throughout the day in Nashville and will do the same in Pittsburgh -- Brigance fulfills his regular duties with the Ravens. He heads the player-development program recognized as the NFL's best in 2006 and 2007.

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