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."
Two years ago -- three seasons into his current job -- Brigance still cut a striking figure in the team's weight room at 6 feet, 236 pounds. Even last spring he was still able to walk. But as his body has deteriorated the players insist they have taken even more encouragement from him. Suddenly twisted ankles or aching joints don't bother them as much as they once did. They push through injuries a little more and don't fret the way they might have once if an important player goes down.
"It does a lot to you emotionally," Ngata said. "It helps to motivate you."
Told this, Brigance shook his head.
"No," he said. "They are the ones who are inspiring me."
It was late in the winter of 2007 when Brigance began to notice weakness in his right shoulder. He went to doctors figuring it might have been a rotator cuff injury that came from working out. After a time the doctors told him they believed he had one of two things: Lyme disease or ALS. He had heard of ALS's most famous victim, baseball player Lou Gehrig, but he knew nothing about the disease itself.
He remembers the dialogue he had with the doctor when the diagnosis was delivered that May.
"Has anyone been healed?" Brigance asked.
"No," the doctor replied.
"I will be the first," Brigance said he told him.
Then he went weeks before telling his employers.
Around the Ravens it became apparent something was wrong. Dick Cass, the team's president, remembered standing with Brigance at that June's minicamp, surprised to see how gaunt the former player looked. It was obvious Brigance was walking with a limp, favoring his right leg. Two months later, during training camp, Brigance pulled Cass aside and told him of his diagnosis. He asked to address the team.
"He spoke beautifully," Cass said. "He said that God was challenging him and he was going to win. You could hear a pin drop in that room."
Brigance asked the players to treat him as they always did. He worried about being a distraction, about being someone the players would look upon with fear, unsure what to make of the man wasting away before them. Would they know how to address him? Would they be too uncomfortable?
"Don't pity me," he said.
As the disease began to tear away at Brigance's body, he fought each erosion of freedom as if it was the fiercest battle of his life. He insisted on driving, even after he was unable hold his arms above his waist, devising a way to clutch the steering wheel at the bottom, by his knees. The Ravens pleaded with him to stop, offering a driver and finally persuading him to do so after they said he could hurt someone in an accident.
This past spring, when his legs no longer allowed him to stand freely, Brigance accepted the team's offer of a wheelchair. But he insisted it not be an actual wheelchair. It had to be something he could control, something that moved. The Ravens got him the motorized chair.
"He's so stubborn," Cass said with a small smile.
As a football player he always fought, breaking through perceptions that he wasn't big enough to play linebacker or played for too small a college program, Rice, to be a serious NFL prospect. For five years he had to play in the Canadian Football League before he made an NFL roster, in 1996. And even when he stuck with the Miami Dolphins he had to overcome a back injury that he was told would be career-ending.
"I've battled my body all my career," he said. "As I played, I had beaten my body into submission. Then to have my body fight back like this? I believe my body is programmed to perform a certain way. I'm going to continue to push it. I'm going to believe I'm going to be healed. I believe I will be able to raise my arms again. I will work my hands again. I will be able to walk on my own again. One day I'm going to do what I did before."
There is an arrogance many athletes have when it comes to their fitness. Sitting in his office, Brigance chuckled slightly as he considered this, nodding in agreement. Perhaps more than even facing a prognosis of death, this is the hardest adjustment: Suddenly, he is without the thing that once made him invulnerable.
"Who are you?" he asked. "When your physical prowess is taken away, who are you? We build our lives on things that are temporary and when these things are taken away who are you inside? That's one of the great blessings I've had. I can see I'm more than an athlete."
More than ever, the last few months have been about teaching, about reflection, about trying to understand why he is among the two out of every 100,000 people to get this disease.
"This is my finest hour," Brigance said, straining to repeat the phrase when it was hard to understand the first time. "I've been able to evaluate myself more.
"One of my favorite quotes came during 9/11: Adversity introduces us to ourselves. You are going to find out what's inside when you go through adversity. I've found some things in myself that I'm not proud of. I've been given the opportunity to go through it and become a better man."
He was asked what those things were. His eyes smiled.
"Do not ask about that," he said.
"We all put on our masks," he continued. "And we're trying to make ourselves a certain way. When all that is taken away, who are you? I'm humbled a lot more. I'm a man who will serve God to the best of my abilities. I control nothing."
Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday that the team needs Brigance. He has given the players something important. He has brought hope.
"They get it," he said.
Last Saturday, as they came into the locker room after beating the Tennessee Titans to make this weekend's AFC championship game, they were greeted by the sight of Brigance standing in the middle of the room, held up by his aide and Cass. The week before, after the Ravens beat Miami, Brigance addressed the team from his motorized chair. Cass could tell he was not comfortable doing that. He wanted to stand before the players.
So this time, as they stormed through the door, they saw Brigance on his feet and their eyes grew misty. Safety Ed Reed handed him the game ball and said, "I love you." The others spilled in behind, touching him, patting him. Ayanbadejo gave his customary head butt.
Brigance looked at the players and said: "Don't celebrate too much. The mission is not complete."
And the men gathered before him laughed and cheered. Some wept. "Things got a little emotional there," Ngata said.
"That whole game was so much back and forth and our defense didn't let them in the end zone except for one time, it reminded me of O.J.," Ngata continued. "It reminded me of how he has kept fighting and fighting. Him being there is kind of like him telling us that we're there fighting along with him."