Brigance: 'This is my finest hour'

PITTSBURGH -- Tears began to flow inside the Baltimore Ravens' locker room following their dramatic playoff victory over the top-seeded Tennessee Titans. It wasn't because of the raw emotion spawned by a 13-10 upset win last week engineered by a last-minute drive capped by kicker Matt Stover's field goal.

The moment as well as the entire season have been inspired by Ravens director of player development O.J. Brigance, who has been fighting a courageous battle ever since being stricken with the fatal illness called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

When the players entered the locker room, they were overjoyed to be greeted by Brigance standing in the middle of the room with his motorized wheelchair off to the side. Free safety Ed Reed promptly gave the former NFL linebacker the game ball, and Brigance responded with a wise reminder.

"Don't celebrate too much," Brigance told the team. "The mission is not complete."

With the resurgent Ravens in the AFC title game today against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, Brigance's spirit of bravery has resonated with the players all season long. And he'll be right next to them on the field prior to kickoff today while serving as an honorary game captain along with former Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa.

Given a grim prognosis by doctors of having two to five more years left to live, Brigance has refused to surrender hope. He has embraced his plight and served as a living example of what faith can mean to an individual and to all those he has influenced with his strength of character, heart and soul.

The former Ravens backup defen sive player and special-teams ace has seen his body decline noticeably, but he hasn't lost his ability to fight.

"He's been a great beacon of light for us, showing us what it really means to be a man as someone who has understood his situation and made the best of it by not looking back with regrets," Stover said. "I think he's been given a higher calling. When you have a purpose greater than yourself, I believe this guy has been the utmost role model for us to look at."

Seated behind his desk at the Ravens' training complex, a deeply religious Brigance is the picture of determination.

His formerly booming voice now sounds hoarse and scratchy, but he's determined to get his message across. He pauses between answers, laboriously leaning forward to take a long drink of ice water.

His former iron grip is no longer there because of the cruel deteriorating effect the disease has inflicted on his muscles and motor neurons. He can no longer type, using voice-activated computer software to communicate his messages. And he can no longer drive so the team provided him with a driver to get him back and forth from home to work.

And his once robust, 6-foot, 236-pound frame that used to be stacked with muscles has declined rapidly, becoming thinner and thinner over the past year.

Yet, Brigance doesn't focus on dying. He stays busy thinking about living his life to the fullest, and setting an example.

"The prognosis of the disease is fatal, but some people last six months and some people last 40 years," Brigance said. "I am going to trust what God tells me more than a doctor. From my relationship with Jesus Christ, I know He will never lead me astray. God has been with me all my life, from when I got my diagnosis to now. God is acting through me. Who am I to tell God what He can do with my life because I owe it to Him anyway?

"God has a greater impact on me now than I ever would have had as a backup and a special-teams player. Through this ailment, I've been able to do a lot and I ascribe it all to Him. I have a brand-new life. Now when I see someone who has a physical disability, I realize there's a lot more to their story than what meets the eye. My story is a lot more than what meets the eye. This is my finest hour."

A former Rice University star who won a Super Bowl title with the Ravens as a wedge-busting special-teams zealot and a Grey Cup title with the CFL's Baltimore Stallions, Brigance remains a fierce competitor.

Now, his primary goal is doing anything he can to assist the players by continuing to give them guidance about completing their educational degrees and planning for life after football. He has been given awards by the NFL for his various player development programs.

"He's an inspiration," linebacker Bart Scott said. "He's the most courageous, he's the greatest man I've ever met in my life. Even before he was afflicted with the ailment, he spoke highly and he always was a great man of faith.

"A lot of times when people are faced with a test, they're not able to walk the walk. He walks the walk. He's a strong man in God, very faithful man and he's proven that every day that God is an awesome God and that there is something greater to life than just football."

Brigance will never give up. He will never stop fighting for the players, or for himself.

If he eventually succumbs to the illness, O.J. Brigance is going to die hard.

"I believe that God will cure me," Brigance said. "I believe through Him all things are possible, and I will never, ever stop believing."

Brigance has been a fixture with the players, who stick to him like glue the night before games. Hugs and handshakes are abundant.

Since a sprained ankle or a sore hamstring pales in comparison to what Brigance is experiencing, his presence tends to erase any urges to complain.

"He's huge for us, he's so important," offensive guard Ben Grubbs said. "We go into his office and hear his stories and what he has to tell us and he's an even bigger inspiration with the things he's going through. We shouldn't ever have any reason to hold our heads down with someone like that doing what he's doing."

Brigance vowed when he was first diagnosed with the illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease after the late baseball player that he would be the first to conquer the ailment. He had one request of the players when he told them what was plaguing him: "Don't pity me."

And they haven't. They have treated him the same, with the utmost respect.

"These guys have inspired me by the way they've handled me and my ailment with their maturity, their caring, heart and commitment," Brigance said. "I just want to do the best job I can for them. I want to tell people that God works through all things. All things are possible through God. Regardless of winning or losing, we have a higher calling to do something great."

Heading into a pivotal football game, the kind Brigance used to love competing in as two trademark bullies square off in Pittsburgh, Brigance can't wait to see how his guys perform.

He offered no prediction or score, but is confident in their resolve and ability after losing to the Steelers twice during the regular season by a total of seven points.

"I don't know what our destiny is, but I know this team will be prepared to handle our business," Brigance said. "I'm confident that the men have grown and learned from all of their experiences up to this point. I'm excited to see what they do with the third opportunity.

"What I wanted to get across to them after the Tennessee game was to understand that no one ever thought we would be where we are, nobody thought we could do this and to understand what you are being asked to do and to understand that this is not the ultimate goal."

Brigance stubbornly declined to use a wheelchair, so the team purchased a motorized chair this spring. Running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery often jokes with Brigance about how he's going to get a speeding ticket for how he scoots around team headquarters.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh and the entire team surprised Brigance this spring by showing up in mass and participating in a 5K to raise funds for ALS research.

"Obviously, he's in a battle right now and, in many ways, it's a spiritual battle," Harbaugh said. "It's a battle of faith, and that's something that's resonated with our whole building. It's just a powerful thing. It's something that means so much about it, and he's practical about it. He's on the front lines, leading us and leading our guys every single day."

Brigance has continually read a quote that stems from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: 'Adversity introduces us to ourselves.'

Through that reading, Brigance's introspection has brought him to some revealing conclusions about what kind of person he is.

"I've become a better man," Brigance said. "God has a plan for all of us. He will bring my name to glory."

Brigance said he has learned more about himself through his struggles than he ever would have when he had a clean bill o f health. And he's learned a lot about how much people care about him.

"I think I've learned that I've been given a great attitude, one of great optimism, one of great faith," Brigance said. "I've realized that I have a great opportunity in my life. Who are you without your prowess on the football field, when that's taken away? I have realized that I'm much more than a football player. I'm a son of a higher God.

"My father is watching over me. I've learned that God really loves me. In the midst of all this, I've received a tremendous outpouring of faith and support. I've been blown away. I've gained a feeling for how people see me and I've been truly humbled by it."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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