View Full Version : Former Dolphin O.J. Brigance determined to beat Lou Gehrig's

03-19-2008, 05:02 AM
Former Dolphin O.J. Brigance determined to beat Lou Gehrig's

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Medical data says O.J. Brigance probably has another year or two left.

He doesn't agree with the cold facts, doesn't seem to care he's gradually being overtaken by an opponent as undefeated as death itself.

Brigance has faith he will be the first person to beat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable neuromuscular disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

He forcefully declares he will survive, says he will raise children he doesn't have yet, will go back to school and get his MBA.

A cynic would say Brigance is in denial. But when you're a God-fearing man of 38, an overachiever who beat the odds to become special-teams captain for the Miami Dolphins and win a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, there's always enough time.

"I have a peace that surpasses all understanding," Brigance said. "It's not lying awake at night, staying up all night, anguishing, eyes red the next day. No, that's not it.

"I have a confidence that I will be healed. I have a confidence that this will not end in death."

Although Brigance chuckles as if he knows something others don't while discussing the future, his disease is terminal. One hundred percent who have had it died ... slowly ... cruelly.

"ALS tends to trudge forward, unfortunately," said Dr. Jeffrey Rothstein, who treats Brigance and is director of the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "There are no miraculous recoveries in ALS."

Brigance was diagnosed in May. His everyday life already has been affected significantly.

His arm movements are more like shrugs. His wife, Chanda, brushes his hair in the morning. She buttons his shirt, pulls on his socks, ties his shoes, puts on his jacket. Then he heads to the Ravens' offices, where he has been director of player development the past four years.

"Everything that I do now takes a conscious effort," Brigance said. "It's not with ease. Everything now is more work than it's ever been and a bit of a workout when I try to attempt them."

An outpouring of support

Brigance initially wanted to keep his diagnosis private, but as he has gotten more involved in ALS fund-raising causes, word of his battle is starting to circulate in the NFL community.

"When I found out the news, it took the wind out of my body," said former Dolphins teammate and fellow Rice alum Larry Izzo, now of the New England Patriots. "To find that out about a person that you care for, it's a shock. Someone so young ... "

This is not a situation where people say nice things about a man just because he's dying.

Brigance was a beloved teammate, the consummate special-teams warrior who reveled in his opportunity to contribute.

"You knew you could count on Juice," said Shannon Sharpe, the star tight end from the Ravens title team. "You talk to anybody who played with him, and I defy you to find one person who can find one thing bad to say about O.J. Brigance."

Brigance won a CFL title for the now-defunct Baltimore Stallions in 1995 and won his Super Bowl ring with the Ravens in 2001, making five special-teams tackles against the New York Giants. He returned to the Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams in 2002 but lost to the Patriots.

"He was a playmaker," said Izzo, a Pro Bowler on special teams with New England. "The way he attacked was the way I tried to play the game - aggressive, fearless, a team player, unselfish."

Brigance won the CFL's Tom Pare Memorial Man of the Year Award for community service in 1995.

During his four seasons in Miami (1996-99), he led Dolphins chapel services. He helped Habitat for Humanity build houses. He won the NFL Players Association's Unsung Hero Award in 1999.

The honors kept coming when he joined the Ravens front office. He won the NFL's Winston/Shell Award in 2005 for commitment and dedication to helping players transition into retirement.

"You wanted to live your life like he did," Izzo said. "Sometimes you don't have the discipline for that, but you could look at how he lived his life as an example of what a person could be."

Dan Marino, whose final four seasons coincided with Brigance's time with the Dolphins, said he was "overwhelmed and saddened to hear the news."

"One of the reasons O.J. was our special-teams captain is because his play inspired others around him," Marino said. "I'm sure his fight against ALS will be inspiring as well."

Beyond the diagnosis

Fifty percent of ALS patients do not live three years beyond the onset of symptoms. Only 20 percent reach five years.

Brigance was diagnosed 10 months ago, but in retrospect, has been experiencing symptoms for two years.

"Do you really want to know when your time is coming on earth?" Sharpe said. "No, you don't."

Brigance admits his life awareness has been heightened. He said he enjoys watching birds fly, appreciates the grace of watching players on the practice field. The little things are more beautiful than before.

That said, he and his wife remain defiant.

"I have not gone to the area of thinking we won't have the time," Chanda Brigance said. "We have the faith he will be around for a while. We're going to be here and be husband and wife.

"I can't see that he's about to leave this earth, that this disease is going to take him. Once I see it that way, it's like I'm giving up on him."

ALS doesn't go into remission. Damage cannot be reversed. Drugs relieve only specific symptoms. Surgery isn't an option.

One by one, motor neurons steadily shut down. As they do, the muscles they control stop functioning and begin to wither. Surrogate forms of movement such as electrical stimulation are useless.

A painful proposition

As muscle progressively atrophies, patients remain sharp mentally.

ALS doesn't affect reasoning, vision, smell, hearing, taste or touch. ALS essentially renders a person's mind and spirit captive inside a slumping body.

"I just wish his family the best," Sharpe said. "What is the best? The best is that he can beat this, be the first person ever to beat this disease. What's the probability of that? And to have to suffer. Does anyone deserve to suffer? Not a friend of mine."

Eventually ALS strikes the muscles of the chest wall and diaphragm, causing the patient to suffocate.

"Pancreatic cancer is the only crueler condition," said Rothstein of the Johns Hopkins research center. "With rare exceptions, patients remain fully cognizant.

"As an adult, to gradually lose the ability to do things you love to and slowly lose the ability to swallow, to breathe. ... It robs. Every day, every week, a little more goes."

That Brigance once was a physical specimen - 6 feet tall, 237 pounds and 7 percent body fat - does nothing to alter his life expectancy. Brigance declines to say how much he weighs today.

"Once your respiratory muscles don't work, there's not much you can do," Rothstein said.

"Regardless of how well-primed your muscle is, if the motor neurons can't fire, nothing happens."

The disease's relentlessness is illustrated by its number of patients.

As many as 8,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S., but there are only about 30,000 cases at any given time.

"The thing about impossibilities is that it's only something that man has not seen," Brigance said. "Just because it hasn't been experienced does not mean that it can't be done. I believe I will be one of the first to be healed of this."


03-19-2008, 05:04 AM
How you can join the Brigance Brigade to fight ALS
By Tim Graham | Wednesday, March 19, 2008, 12:02 AM


Sometimes a story is bigger than the space a newspaper article allows, which is why I’m writing more here about former Dolphins captain O.J. Brigance and his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

ALS is an incurable and terminal disease. Motor neurons shut down, causing muscles to wither until the patient can no longer breathe. Half of all ALS patients die with three years. Only 20 percent reach five years.

Brigance is a devout Christian with faith he will be the first person to beat ALS. Despite his defiance, he is hoping his cachet as a former NFL player — a Super Bowl champ and director of player development for the Ravens — will help raise money for research.

He has formed the Brigance Brigade, has been working with the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins and is the honorary chair of the Fiesta 5K & Fun Run on May 3 in Baltimore. And you don’t have to be anywhere near the Patapsco River to get involved.

Good souls can click here to long onto the Fiesta 5K site and make a $20 siesta pledge (it’s a Cinco de Mayo theme) for sleeping in that day because, well, O.J. would want you to.

“The platform that I’ve been given can give tremendous exposure to ALS and an opportunity to do some good,” Brigance said. “When adversity strikes we often want to shrink back and go into our shell, and there’s a time to do that. But we also experience things so we have an opportunity to impact others.”

Brigance played with the Dolphins from 1996 through 1999 as a reserve linebacker, but his impact was made on special teams, in the locker room and in the community. He helped build homes in Little Havana through Habitat for Humanity and staged food drives. He has won awards for his selflesseness from the CFL, NFL and NFL Players Association to name a few organizations.

And he took in a couple young knuckleheads named Larry Izzo and Zach Thomas.

“It was easy to bounce questions off him,” said Izzo, a special teams Pro Bowler who modeled himself after Brigance and became a folk hero for the champion Patriots. “We would sit in the locker room and just discuss life. I can’t emphasize the amount of respect everybody who has met O.J. has for him.”

Brigance already has established a presence in Baltimore. Izzo said he would contact Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who runs an ALS foundation in Boston, on Brigance’s behalf.

It would be encouraging to see the folks of South Florida step up, too.