Vince Lombardi once said, “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.”
It is a quote that O.J. Brigance recently tweeted. It is also one that he fully embraces. The former Rice Owls linebacker and Super Bowl XXXV champ with the Baltimore Ravens has always abided by the qualities of “strength,” “knowledge,” and “will” and especially so since 2007 when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Brigance viewed this uninvited chapter of his life as a challenge to be met head on. His strength and will combined with his knowledge of ALS have allowed him to serve as an ambassador for the disease through, among other things, the Brigance Brigade Foundation, which was founded by Brigance and his wife, Chanda, in 2008.
“When I was first diagnosed with ALS, once I got past the initial shock, I was determined to beat this dreadful disease,” said Brigance in an email. “The most important thing I told myself was that God hadn’t brought me this far in life to leave me to death. I believe that life’s challenges serve as preparation for greater challenges down the road of life. Every tribulation I had faced in life strengthened my resolve and perseverance to overcome ALS. Along with a strong mental resolve, I have tried to remain engaged in the same activities I enjoyed before my diagnosis. My physical abilities may have declined, but I am still engaged mentally to impact the world around me.”
Though the disease has left Brigance unable to speak and void of voluntary muscle movement he communicates using a device that allows individuals with mobility impairments to navigate laptops and tablets through built in eye-tracking technology. His words, sentences and paragraphs come to life through his eye movements.
Through such innovation Brigance, who will turn 47 in September, is regularly in contact with Ravens players in his role as senior adviser to player engagement director Harry Swayne. In this position, which he has held since 2010, Brigance does not hesitate to deliver a message to a struggling player who could use a boost and/or a nugget of advice.
“I try to help the men realize a higher perspective of the situation they are facing,” he said. “The intestinal fortitude that drove them to be professional athletes, overcoming various socioeconomic barriers, is the same fight that will push them over the current obstacle they may be facing. We are all mentally stronger than we often give ourselves credit for. Realizing how blessed to be living another day can be the best impetus to embrace any challenge life sends our way.”
Much of Brigance’s mental strength was molded through the game of football. Whether it was as a youth, during his years as a standout linebacker at Rice or his dozen seasons as a professional in the NFL and CFL, the game beyond the X’s and O’s instilled many lessons. Such lessons also help guide him today.
“Football has taught me that if you fully commit yourself to a task, hard work and dedication will be rewarded,” said Brigance, who also won a CFL title with the Baltimore Stallions giving him the distinction of being the only player to win championships with the two leagues in the same city. “I wasn’t the ideal candidate to be a professional athlete. However, refusing to let other people’s opinions of my abilities determine my fate was a great life lesson football taught me. We can’t allow other people’s limitations on our capabilities become a stumbling block to our God-given destiny.”
To a large extent that is the message he disseminates to those who have been diagnosed with ALS. Instead of those stumbling blocks serving as insurmountable barriers, Brigance inspires countless individuals to adopt a mindset that they can plow through.
“My message to people who have been recently diagnosed is that although there will be many adjustments in their life, there is still so much to continue to fight for,” he said. “Recent technological advances have increased our ability to live full, impactful lives. Although researchers have yet to find a cure for ALS, life still can go on. It will be challenging and different, but very much worth fighting for.”
Those who desire to help continue the fight can visit brigancebrigade.org for information on upcoming events, how to donate funds and/or volunteer in any one of many capacities.