Brigance, Suffering From Lou Gehrig's Disease, Is Ravens' Source of Strength

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Tucked into an alcove deep down a cinder block hallway of the Baltimore Ravens' headquarters rests a black, motorized device that vaguely resembles a wheelchair. The chair is empty this morning.

The man for whom it is intended sits instead in an office across the hall, behind a desk, refusing to yield to a disease that is destroying him. Eventually today someone will have to carry him to the motorized chair if he wishes to move freely through the halls the way he did when he was a chiseled linebacker who led a brigade of special teams players sprinting furiously downfield. But until that moment, Ravens executive O.J. Brigance will maintain as much normalcy as possible. This is important to him.

Slowly, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has taken the precious things from his life. He can no longer walk. He cannot stand freely. His arms do not move. His hands lie twisted and helpless on his lap. Speaking is a chore that requires him to thrust his body forward and thrust the words from his mouth. A great voice that boomed across rooms is now hoarse and shallow. His disease destroys the motor neurons that run between the brain and the rest of the body. Eventually it will kill him. It has no cure.

To those who see Brigance every day it is clear he is dying.

Only he believes he will be the first to survive.

"They say I have two to five years," Brigance, 39, said as he sat at his desk this week. "Everyone is expecting me to die. I do not answer to that plan. God has given me so much more. I'm going to believe Him now rather than what a doctor is saying. We as individuals believe [doctors] and because we believe them we limit ourselves. With God all things are possible. God, I believe, will cure me."

On this run in the NFL playoffs that no one expected, the Ravens players say they have an inspiration. Brigance, the team's director of player development, is in their locker room after games, his eyes smiling even if his mouth cannot. He is constantly working, propped before a computer with special controls. He corners players in hallways, pleading with them to complete unfinished college degrees.

And they shake their heads, wondering how he is even still here.

"It's amazing. He is the happiest guy in the building," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "The thing about O.J. is that he's always thinking about us and helping us while he's dealing with what he's going through. As much as we should be uplifting him, he's instead uplifting us."

On the night before games, when their meetings are over, the Ravens gather around Brigance and touch him. Some rub his arm. Others, such as nose tackle Haloti Ngata, give him a hug. Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo insists on giving a gentle head butt, or "a love butt," as he calls it.

They do this because they say there is power in the man who was once the special teams star of Baltimore's last Super Bowl team, in the 2000 season, and they want to feel the energy of a man who is fighting so valiantly against death.

"Touching him gives us our strength," Ayanbadejo said. "People say, 'You're only as strong as your weakest link.' He is our strongest link."

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