Thirty-three of the bravest men in the NFL were honored Tuesday night at the Ed Block Courage Awards. All of them had overcome difficult circumstances to earn a spot near the stage at
Baltimore's Martin's West.
Buffalo's Kevin Everett, who overcame a near-paralyzing spinal cord injury in the season opener to reunite with his teammates 17 weeks later.
Detroit running back Kevin Jones, who returned to the gridiron months ahead of schedule after tearing ligaments in his foot towards the end of the 2006 campaign.
There was the Ravens' own Samari Rolle, whose bout with epilepsy kept him out of six games last season before he came back to the starting lineup.
The overall themes of each athlete's story were defeating the odds and making a comeback.
Even though he is suffering from an illness that is often fatal, that is exactly what O.J. Brigance intends to do.
Brigance received the Johnny Unitas Tops in Courage Award for his resiliency and determination in fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, which progressively shuts down nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The worst effects are seen in muscle control and movement, eventually leading to paralysis while the brain continues to function.
The affects of ALS can already be seen. Once a mighty 236-pound linebacker and special teams ace that owns a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens and a Grey Cup ring with Canadian Football's Baltimore Stallions, Brigance now relies on the team's catering staff to help him cut his meals into manageable pieces.
Once a terror on the racquetball court, the man players, friends and co-workers call "Juice" now cannot lift his arms high enough to swat the bouncing blue ball.
What the disease may have done to his body, however, has clearly not affected his spirit.
As the Ravens' director of player development, Brigance continues to go to work every day. Although he is now assisted by former teammate Harry Swayne, he is building on a development program that was named the NFL's best the past two years and the top internship program of 2005.
His trademark bright smile never stops shining, and his deep baritone calls out anyone that dares walk past his office without saying hello.
While most people would ask why they are chosen for such a trial in life, Brigance sees his situation differently.
"I think that's the wrong question. Instead, it should be why not me," he said at the ceremony. "We all have been given a place of privilege and a platform to impact people's lives.
"I know that God understands that I can handle this. That I will stand firmly in the midst of it. I will not give up. I will not waver. I will get those around me and gather forces, and we will defeat this disease."
His words drew a rousing applause from a crowd that knew the dire truth about ALS. No one has developed a cure yet. The average life expectancy for an ALS patient is two to five years (according to the ALS Association's official Web site).
Brigance knows these truths, as well, but he simply refuses to give up, much like he did when he heard the word "No" from all but two NFL teams when he originally attempted to break into the league.
"It's just another thing," he simply explained. "I've been privileged to overcome so many challenges in my life. Men have always persevered through their faith in God and support from friends and family. The only thing that is impossible is what we think is impossible."
As Brigance stood on stage next to a replica of one of Unitas' black cleats, an award only previously won by the late Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints linebacker Sam Mills, his steely gaze settled in on the audience.
Even as a player that always did better than expected, he always preferred to stay in the background. Now, Brigance is seeking out the spotlight – which was trained directly on him Tuesday evening – to bring more awareness to his disease.
Brigance created his own foundation, the Brigance Brigade, and signed on as an ambassador for the
Center, which researches ALS. He is also serving as the honorary chairman for a 5K run to support ALS research on May 3.
"I understand that each of us has a responsibility when there is hardship in our life to stand up and deal with it," Brigance said to the other 32 award winners, imploring them to act. "All of us that received the Courage Award have overcome adversity, and if we don't bow to it and keep our eyes on God, everything will be OK. Everything is for a reason."
Not only did Brigance have an impact on those attending the event, but he is also an inspiration within his own organization.
When Rolle was briefly interviewed, the veteran cornerback was quick to deflect praise to his colleague and friend.
"It's not just about me and epilepsy," he stated. "I look at what guys like O.J. Brigance are going through, and he never misses work. He just goes about his business. Those are heroes to me."
Ravens president Dick Cass agreed.
"O.J. is one of the most amazing people that I've met," he said. "When he comes into a room, he lights it up with his smile. I've never seen anyone face a challenge that he's facing with such enormous courage and grace."
All in all, courage was certainly the buzz word of the evening. And there is no doubt that Brigance's touching, chilling and heart-wrenching story inspired courage – and perhaps some quiet tears – in a roomful of supporters.