O.J. Brigance true spiritual leader of Baltimore Ravens
While Ray Lewis may be the Ravens' leader on the field, but from the team's perspective, O.J. Brigance fills that role. (JIM YOUNG/Reuters)
Every day, when he can, Ray Lewis walks by the office of O.J. Brigance, sometimes popping his head in. He almost always has something to say and, more importantly, something to listen to.
It has been that way since Lewis and Brigance played together in their Super Bowl win of 2000, and it has been that way since Brigance joined the front office of the Baltimore Ravens in 2004 and has quietly become the spiritual leader, spiritual adviser and maybe the most beloved figure on a team one win away from once again winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The leader most see from the outside looking in is Lewis. But from the inside, he and almost all of his teammates look at it differently.
“I can’t begin to put into words what being around O.J. Brigance every day is like,” said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome at Super Bowl media day. He stopped himself to compose himself before continuing.
“You can say you’re having a bad day, when you’re not really having a bad day. You can you’re struggling, the way he’s struggling, but you’re not struggling, not when the guy is fighting for his life every day. And every day is a good day for him and he somehow fights through it.”
In 2007, Brigance, the former CFL all star, the only player in football history to win a Grey Cup and a Super Bowl for a team from the same city — Baltimore — was diagnosed with ALS, the cruel and fatal disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which strips away your functions one by one. Doctors told him then he had three to five years to live.
This is Year Six. Brigance, 43, a gifted athlete with a gifted brain who played 12 years of pro football, can’t walk anymore, can’t talk anymore, communicates the way Tony Proudfoot, the former Montreal football player and broadcaster, managed in his final years in Montreal: Through a computer that speaks the thoughts he types.
But Brigance also communicates with his expressive eyes, with his giant smile, with an intelligence that has made him the motivational centre of the underdog Ravens.
Lewis, heading to his last football game of a fascinating study of a career, calls Brigance the “glue that has kept us together.”
“You hear the question about what has really kept our team together. To me, he is the foundation of all that,” said the controversial linebacker.
“He has taught us everything there is to learn about a man and what you’re going through in life. It ain’t what you’re going through, it’s your mindset when you’re going through it.
“For me, personally, I’ve always had a relationship with him because I won my first Super Bowl with him. And I was able to see him walk physically and run down the field and make the first special teams tackle of that game. I knew him as a football player and then to see him in his state now ...
“I treat him no different, as the O.J. he’s always been. To him, fighting ALS, it’s a crazy disease because it starts to take away who you are as a man and steals everything from you, but it hasn’t stolen his joy, hasn’t stolen his spirit. It hasn’t taken away his faith. Every day we walk into that locker room you pass by Juice’s office and I always tell him — ‘You’re my greatest motivation, to never let me complain.’
“We might be hurt, we might need some ice on this, ice on that, but to watch O.J. Brigance daily and see the things he’s made up of mentally ... He has to move on and go on and it’s the most that you can live with being a man, the ultimate respect you can carry.
“Really, it defines us as a team. When he gives us messages it comes from a different place. Hearing him speak, knowing he can’t do any of that physically, but he can use his mind to speak through that computer and push out all those graceful words — he speaks to us. I don’t believe we’re here without the presence of O.J. Brigance. Honest, I don’t.”
There remains debate about what causes ALS, but the link to football and the link to blows to the head is now both apparent and troubling. Brigance is dying of ALS. He is not alone. So is Steve Gleason, who played for the New Orleans Saints as recently as 2007. Since 1960, 14 former NFL players have been diagnosed with ALS, which is a rate considerably higher than the rest of mainstream society.
But the Ravens’ players don’t fear for their own futures. Athletes rarely worry about the long term. But here, this team, this time, appreciates and admires the strength they gain from Brigance’s daily perseverance.
“Physically, in his weakened state, we have nobody who is stronger spiritually or intellectually than O.J.,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh on Tuesday. “With the relationships he has built with our guys, he has strengthened our team from the inside out.
“My brother Jim has an expression about getting better every day, even if it’s only 1% better. Every day, O.J. Brigance makes everybody here better because of who he is and what he says and what he means to our people.”
The older players speak of Brigance as a tutor, a mentor, someone who got involved with their careers when they were very young and has inspired and improved them along the way. He has this way with people.
The younger players speak respectfully of the words of wisdom they hear through a computer voice — short, but always meaningful sentences. The messages, seemingly, have gotten through. On a crowded media day, with nuance and nonsense about, almost all of the players asked about O.J. stopped. Their eyes lit up, the answer was longer, more meaningful, than the usual football give and take.
“You have to understand what it’s like,” said Arthur Jones, the young defensive lineman and brother of the UFC superstar Jon (Bones) Jones. “We’re here fighting for the Super Bowl. We think that’s important. This guy’s fighting for his life, every single day. Never takes a day off. Never stops fighting. We just play a game.
“You can’t equate the two. But you can gain inspiration from it. Every day, he’s in the fight of his life and every day we’re watching him and we see him fighting. And you wonder, where does a person get that kind of strength from? Some days you might think, ‘I’m having a bad day.’ Then I snap myself out of it. I have no idea what a bad day is. He’s our fighter, and we respect the hell out of him for the way he fights.”
No doubt, some time before Sunday’s kickoff, Lewis will talk to the team, about his last game, about what this Super Bowl means. And Brigance, through a computer, will speak also. The room will go silent and the awkward sound of a computer speaking will be captivating for the Ravens.
There is no way of knowing how much longer Brigance will live, but the Ravens know he will fight as long as there is time.
“We all know what he’s been through and what he goes through every day,” said Anquan Boldin, the veteran wide receiver, himself known as a battler on the field. “I think everybody in our locker room has been touched by him, just knowing the knowledge he has imparted on us. It’s been a blessing for us to have him.
“He’s given us a gift. It’s time for us to give one back.”