During the football pre-season, Coach Rob Ambrose regularly schedules a guest speaker to address his team.
Those who were in attendance on the evening of August 14 heard a very memorable speaker, one they are not likely to forget. His name was O.J. Brigance.
From 1991 to 2002, O.J. Brigance was a professional football player.
He enjoyed a great deal of success during five seasons in the Canadian Football League and six years in the National Football League.
Most notably, the Houston, Texas native etched his name in pro football history when he became the only player to be part of a Grey Cup championship team and a Super Bowl championship team while playing for teams that represented the same city – Baltimore.
In 1995, he was an All-Pro linebacker for the Baltimore Stallions, which became the first and only American team to win the Grey Cup. Five years later, he was a linebacker and special teams standout for the Baltimore Ravens when they won Super Bowl XXXV.
At the conclusion of his playing career in 2003, he joined the Ravens in an administrative capacity. He is currently the Senior Advisor for Player Development.
O.J.’s life changed dramatically on May 3, 2008. He was diagnosed with a deadly disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
Most commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” ALS is a progressive, disabling, and fatal disease. It causes the wasting away of certain nerve cells of the brain and spinal column called motor neurons, which control the voluntary muscles. These are the muscles that allow movement. The cause is unknown and there is no cure yet.
For O.J. Brigance, the key word is “yet.”
“Nobody has beaten ALS, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” he says with a sense of optimism. “Perhaps I can be the first.”
When he spoke to the Tiger football team, everyone found out what a special person O.J. Brigance is.
He came into the Minnegan Room in a wheelchair. The wheelchair included a device to help him breathe. Attached to the front of the wheelchair was something that looked like a television screen.
The football players soon found out that the screen is the way O.J. Brigance speaks.
Behind the screen is a man filled with life. His alert eyes and broad smile revealed the real O.J. Brigance. Despite his physical limitations, ALS has not diminished his spirit at all.
“When I was first diagnosed, my wife and I sat down and cried,” he recalls. “But, then we decided we were going to do dedicate ourselves to fight this disease. We were going to help others fight this disease. I decided that we were going to do everything I could to fight it.”
At that moment, the Brigance Brigade was born.
With the help of his wife, Chanda, O.J.created the Brigance Brigade Fund to raise funds to improve the quality of life of ALS patients and their families by providing access to vital treatment, medications, equipment and support services. As a partner with the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins, the Brigance Brigade also supports the critical funding of research for a cure.
The Brigance Brigade raises money and awareness for ALS and conducts a number of fund-raising activities throughout the year such as a bowling tournament and the Fiesta 5K run. Last year, the Tiger football players helped out at the 5K run which raised more than $300,000.
While working with the Brigance Brigade has taken up a lot of his time, the amazing O.J. Brigance still reports to his office at the Baltimore Ravens Complex to continue in his role of Senior Director of Player Development.
Using his television-like computer screen, O.J. Brigance spoke to the Tiger football players about the importance of “Faith, Focus and Fortitude.”
“When I first learned that I would have the opportunity to address you all, I was so excited because I believe that nothing I do is by accident and there is divine providence in my assignments,” he says. “I have been blessed to enjoy some extraordinary triumphs and extreme challenges in my life. My hope is that you men would receive nuggets of wisdom from our time together that will give you greater vision for the journey through life and for the upcoming season.”
He told them, “Faith, Focus, Fortitude - These three words have been instrumental in determining how I was able to remain humble in triumphs and encouraged during adversities. Having faith allows us to achieve. I’ve had the strength to fight this disease through my faith.
“The only thing that can limit your success is you,” he added. “One year ago, no one outside of this room believed that the Towson Tigers could go from a 1-10 record to become the CAA champions. Now here you are poised to defend your title opening against Kent State and LSU a couple of weeks after. Great opportunities are always disguised as great challenges!
“Lastly, fortitude is the strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with great courage. Men, I have discovered that you can never know your true strength without being tested by adversity.”
He concluded with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, who said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
While he spoke through his computer, there wasn’t a sound in the room, and he had the undivided attention of everyone. When he finished, he received a heart-felt standing ovation.
As the Tigers left the room, each of them stopped by O.J. Brigance to thank him or just say hello.
Coach Ambrose praised the speaker saying, “O.J. Brigance is the most inspirational person I’ve ever met. Every morning, he punches death in the face because he refuses to give in. His spirit and his courage are amazing because he has refused to let ALS conquer his mind, his heart and his soul.”