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2016 NCAA Inspiration Award: O.J. Brigance

The former Rice linebacker motivated others long before his fight with ALS

When Mike Hooks stepped into Rice University’s weight room on a recruiting trip in January 1988, he heard a familiar melody – iron rattling against iron, grunts creeping out of barrel chests – but one voice rose above the clamor. A relatively small football player had captured the room’s attention as he soldiered through squats, hundreds of pounds on his back, eliciting shouts and smiles from his teammates. When the man racked the weight, barking and beaming, he noticed the young recruit in the corner of the room. Instead of ignoring Hooks, the man tossed an arm around Hooks’ shoulder and took him on a tour of the facility. Both were linebackers, Hooks learned. Both might be side by side on the field someday.

“I hadn’t decided where I wanted to go, but that made a huge impact,” says Hooks, who went on to sign with Rice. “It was a shock. …It was like we were family.”

Today, O.J. Brigance, the man who squatted and shouted and threw a bulky arm around Hooks’ shoulder, can do none of those things. Lou Gehrig’s disease has confined Brigance to a wheelchair. A ventilator forces oxygen into his lungs. A computerized voice enunciates his thoughts. But he shows up to work in the Baltimore Ravens’ front office every day, and he spearheads a foundation dedicated to raising money for families affected by the disease that has reshaped his life. 

His refusal to give up or give in to a disease that typically carries a two- to five-year life expectancy has garnered praise and awards and headlines in the years since his 2007 diagnosis. Brigance’s battle is moving, but the people who knew him best when he was Rice’s star defensive player in the late 1980s say ALS didn’t make him an inspiration, it simply found its way into a man who already was one. Today, he is the same person who once wrung every drop of sweat from his teammates on the field and who was their conscience off of it. In a bittersweet twist, the affliction that robbed him of his voice has helped him speak even louder, giving him a platform to demonstrate his determination and faith and to share the infectious positivity that Rice teammates and coaches say existed from the moment he put an arm around their shoulders and made them feel like family.

“I don’t know how many people in the world there are that could handle his situation with the grace and determination that he has,” Hooks says. “If this was going to happen to anybody that was on our team … he would probably be the first person that we'd say, ‘Yeah, he's got the mental fortitude to do it.’”

A center at Willowridge High School in Houston, Brigance was overlooked by Southwest Conference powers before he graduated in 1987. His high school coach tried to convince Fred Goldsmith, then the University of Arkansas’ defensive coordinator, that Brigance had the speed and drive to transition from undersized offensive lineman to star linebacker, but Goldsmith wasn’t sold. When the coach took over Rice’s football program in 1989, though, Brigance was already there, a junior linebacker who happened to be the team’s best defensive player. 

That year, Brigance insisted that he and his defensive teammates would not only handle their responsibilities in practice, but would learn defensive schemes for several opponents and would serve as the scout team defense in order to help Rice’s offense better prepare. It was an exhausting undertaking, but Goldsmith says Brigance’s teammates refused to complain when he implored them to do extra work. Away from the field, he served as a peer adviser at the school’s career services department. Julie Griswold, the school’s associate director of academic advising for athletics, says she leaned on Brigance when she needed help nudging other students in the right direction and that he always came to her office wearing a smile. “His attitude was infectious,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you want to be around O.J.?”

Though he was able to push his weight up to about 210 pounds by his senior year, Brigance remained undersized for his position. Teammate Donald Bowers remembers he and his fellow linebackers losing to Brigance in every footrace through college; he used that blazing speed to set Rice’s career tackles record, which still stands today, despite playing his senior season with a broken hand encased in a cast. And Goldsmith credits Brigance with helping to change the program’s culture, pointing to the Brigance-led 1990 team that overachieved in a tough Southwestern Conference and finished 5-6 as one of his favorites in his 45 years coaching football. Two seasons later, Rice earned its first winning season in 30 years. 

When Brigance told his coach about his aspirations to play professionally, Goldsmith urged him to consider alternatives. He was too small, the coach cautioned, and performed well enough in the classroom that he was sure to succeed off the field. Don’t get left behind chasing an improbable dream, Goldsmith warned. Brigance, though, used that doubt as fuel and launched a professional career in the Canadian Football League in 1991. He would return to Rice to finish his coursework and graduate in 1992 with a degree in managerial studies and went on to play for two Canadian teams, winning a Grey Cup in 1995, and four NFL franchises. Despite limited playing time, he was named a team captain in Miami and made the first tackle in the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV victory. Goldsmith watched, elated with his miscalculation. “I was wrong,” Goldsmith says. “I shouldn’t have, but I underestimated his determination.”

Brigance’s pro career ended in 2002, and the Ravens hired him to oversee the team’s player development program two years later. Much like he had at Rice, Brigance’s focus was to help the players around him maintain theirs and prepare for life away from football. His department was selected as the NFL’s best player development program in both 2005 and 2006. In 2007, though, Bowers’ old friend seemed frail and lethargic at a dinner. When Brigance left the table, Bowers asked Brigance’s wife, Chanda, what was wrong. “He’ll tell you when he’s ready,” is all she could muster.

Around Christmas of that year, Bowers finally got a call – and an answer. Brigance told him he had ALS, the disease that causes nerve cells to wither and die, triggering muscles throughout the body to fail and eventually robbing its victims of the ability to speak or even breathe on their own. Brigance and Chanda had spent time grieving, but Brigance’s message to Bowers was simple: The time for tears had passed and, as he always had, Brigance planned to defy expectations, no matter how grim the prognosis.

The ensuing years have not passed without difficulties and pain – Brigance has publicly praised his wife for devoting so much energy to his care – but the rest of the country has gradually been introduced to the determination that friends like Bowers and Hooks and Goldsmith came to know two decades ago. Brigance launched the Brigance Brigade Foundation, which has raised more than $1 million to help other families affected by ALS afford in-home care and expensive medical equipment.

All the while, Brigance never gave up his day job with the Ravens, communicating through a computerized system that allows him to type and speak by tracking his eyes’ movement. Several members of the Ravens team that won the Super Bowl in 2013 pointed to him as a steady source of motivation. And his impact is still being felt at Rice. Bowers helped establish the O.J. Brigance Courage Award, given annually to the Rice football player who embodies what Brigance always has: teamwork, character, work ethic and leadership. In 2012, he was named one of the school’s distinguished alumni. 

Like others affected by ALS, Brigance’s mind is intact. Bowers says his friend is still the same person he has long known, eager to talk politics or sports when Bowers visits him in Baltimore a few times every year. Hooks says it’s hard not to ache for Brigance, but has left their interactions since his diagnosis heartened, much like he felt after that first trip to the Rice weight room.

Griswold was nervous when she first saw Brigance after he was diagnosed. Could she hug him? Was it safe? She later found out a hug would have been fine and lamented holding back, so when she saw him at a recent Rice event, she rushed to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

Brigance responded with a smile like he always has, no different from the young man who frequented her office 25 years ago.

“You see that spark in his eyes,” she says. “It’s still there.”