Welcome back to the Limelight blog. This week, I'd like to bring your attention to several exceptional stories, some that have received much media attention and a couple others that haven't. The focus of this edition is courage and inspiration, both on and off the field. So without further ado…
ED BLOCK BANQUET
This coming Tuesday, March 11, two of the most courageous and inspiring Ravens will be honored at the 30th Annual Ed Block Courage Awards. As earlier reported, CB Samari Rolle is slated to receive the prestigious Ed Block Courage Award, honoring his brave comeback to football after battling epilepsy in 2007. Rolle, who was unaware of the illness when the season began, missed six games after suffering several severe seizures throughout the year. His first episode occurred prior to the Sept. 23 game vs. Arizona. After being diagnosed with the ailment and taking medication, Rolle returned to the gridiron on Oct. 14 vs. St. Louis. He played in the following week's contest, but then sustained more seizures and was forced to try different medications. Missing three more weeks, Rolle finally returned to action on Nov. 25 at San Diego. He played once more after that (against New England), before being sidelined the final four games with a shoulder injury.
Voted on by teammates, the Ed Block Courage Award is bestowed annually to one player from every NFL team. It is a tribute to the individual who displays commitments to the principles of courage and sportsmanship, all while serving as an inspiration in the locker room and community. No questions asked, Samari is well deserving of this recognition.
O.J. Brigance is the other Raven being honored for his courage at this year's Ed Block event. O.J. will receive the Johnny Unitas Tops in Courage Award, an elite distinction "reserved for a non-player (such as an owner, coach or administrator) in the NFL, who is nominated by his/her team for demonstrating tremendous courage in the face of adversity and/or serving as an inspiration to others," the foundation states. "The award is not presented annually, as it is reserved for only extraordinary circumstances worthy of such prestigious recognition."
As many people in the Baltimore community already know, O.J. was a linebacker and special teams standout for seven NFL seasons (including one with the Ravens during their 2000 Super Bowl Championship year). Additionally, O.J. has served as our team's director of player development since 2004, earning his department several NFL awards for its success in educating and further assisting players off the field.
But, what most people don't know is that O.J. was diagnosed with ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease – this past season. ALS is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that breaks down the central nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement. The disorder causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body, often making the person incapable of initiating and controlling voluntary movement.
Though O.J.'s story is unbelievably heart wrenching, it's also undeniably inspirational. Before he was diagnosed with ALS – and any person who knows him can verify this – O.J. was one of the most upbeat, positive and amiable people in our building. Now, after taking on this life-changing and difficult battle – and continuing his duties with the Ravens – O.J. is, well, still the same old O.J.
Actually, some say he and his spirit are even stronger.
"At first, I didn't know much about ALS and I had to do my research," he told me earlier this week. "Is it scary? Absolutely. But, I figured I am in a great position to create awareness about it and help find a cure. I probably didn't realize the full scope of responsibly I had or the effect I could have when this first began. But now, I've come to understand what I can do.
"I've been very blessed in my life. So really, 'To whom much is given, much will be expected.' That's how I look at it."
Embracing this unwavering mentality has prompted O.J. to take on several endeavors. He recently started the Brigance Brigade, a foundation teamed with the Robert Packard Center for ALS research at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. As stated on the organization's web site, http://www.alscenter.org/, it "is the only one of its kind dedicated solely to the disease. Although the Center operates within the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, its scope is international."
O.J. currently serves as a co-chair for one of the Center's events, the Second Annual Fiesta 5K & Fun Run, which will be held May 3 in Baltimore. Anyone interested in participating or sponsoring a team can visit the event's web site by clicking here. Additionally, if you'd like to submit a donation to the Brigance Brigade, checks can be made out to the "Baltimore Community Foundation" with "Brigance Brigade" written in the memo section. Those donations should be sent to:
Baltimore Community Foundation
2 E. Read St.
Baltimore, MD 21202
"I've said from the beginning that we're not going to bend over, and we're not going to break," O.J. assertively stated. "We're going to fight this, we're going to be strong, and we're going to find a cure."
I know I speak for every person in our organization when I say, "We're with you all the way, O.J."
Media Note:This Monday, make sure you check out the *Baltimore Sun. Head football writer Jamison Hensley recently interviewed O.J. about everything from football to the Ravens' top-notch player development program to O.J.'s battle with ALS. Hensley's feature story will provide an in-depth look at what O.J. has accomplished, and what he's striving for now.*
*Additionally, Comcast Sports Net will run a feature piece on O.J. leading up to its converge of the Ed Block Courage Awards. Keep an eye out for this one. I listened to O.J.'s sit-down interview with reporter Brent Harris last Friday, and it's absolutely amazing! *
NO. 4 MOVING ON
Upon hearing news of Brett Favre's retirement earlier this week, I called Ravens long snapper and Wisconsin native Matt Katula. Like every other kid from the Cheese State, "Matt-Kat" grew up on Packers football. He loved it. He lived it. Undoubtedly, his favorite player was Favre. So much so, that three years ago when the Packers came to Baltimore for a late December game, I still remember just how jacked up Katula was, knowing he'd be on a field playing against the legend he idolized. "How amazing will this be?" I recall the giddy rookie saying just a couple days before the game.
Anyway, I wanted to talk to Matt and hear what he had to say about Favre's departure this week. Upon asking, the first thing out of his mouth was, "Oh, my little brother is crushed. It's crazy everywhere in Wisconsin right now. People are really sad."
I know exactly how he and every other Packers fan feels. It's the same emotion I experienced nearly 10 years ago when my childhood hero, John Elway, hung up his cleats. Just as Elway cried during his emotionally-charged goodbye press conference, so too did Broncos diehards all across the Rocky Mountain region.
And certainly, Baltimore fans are no stranger to similar sentiment: Much like Elway in Denver and Favre in Green Bay, Johnny Unitas will always be a legend here in Charm City. Unitas, who again, like Favre and Elway, is considered one of the best to ever play the game. To their respective cities, these quarterbacks – along with others such as Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino and Roger Staubach – were more than just football icons. They were football.
"I was 9 or 10 years old when Favre first played for the Pack," Katula said. "Everybody in Wisconsin is always a Packers fan because you are from here. But during that time, people weren't huge fans because the team wasn't consistently good. When Brett came in, and we saw this young guy with a live arm, he turned the whole franchise around for my generation. Really, he turned the game around."
Favre, who hails from a small town in rural Mississippi, has been described as one of the most-laid back and "regular" guys in the NFL. "He's no different than your average Joe," Katula continued. "I think he fit in so well in Green Bay because it's such a blue-collar town. Brett was blue-collar."
"He was the superstar who lived next door," Baltimore Sun columnist Bill Ordine penned in a great feature Wednesday. "He was the neighbor who forgot to bring back the hedge clippers but helped dig your car out of the snow. He was the guy whose dog got in your flower bed but invited you over for burgers and hot dogs on the grill."
And in addition to that, Brett Favre was also dominant. Not a soul can dispute the NFL records he set over a 17-season span. Favre eclipsed nearly every career passing mark, including touchdowns (442), yards (61,655), completions (5,377) and attempts (8,758). Perhaps most impressive is the Cal Ripken-esque streak he compiled, becoming the NFL's undisputed Ironman with 275 consecutive (including playoffs) games started. The next best run? Peyton Manning, who currently has 160 straight starts under his belt. Without question, Manning has many, many games to go.
"He was great for the game," Katula added. "And, he is the last of that elite group we were so used to watching for so long. You know, guys like Marino, Elway, Montana, Young and Moon. I'll tell you what: More than just Packers fans are going to miss that."
Well said, Matt.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Here's a little-known Favre fact I've yet to see anybody mention the past couple days:
By now, we all know that Favre's final NFL pass was intercepted in the NFC Championship game last January. That being said, can you guess the outcome of Favre's first-ever NFL pass?
Answer: An interception… Um, and a touchdown.
Playing for the Falcons as a rookie, Favre attempted his first toss on Nov. 10, 1991 at Washington. Coming off the bench during the fourth quarter in place of Billy Joe Tolliver, Favre's initial attempt was intercepted by Andre Collins and returned 15 yards for a touchdown. On Atlanta's ensuing possession, Favre entered the game again, only to throw two incomplete passes and then – yep, who'd have thought this? – another pick, this time capping Washington's win.
Just how coincidental is that? To me, it's amazing – and kind of eerie – that Favre began his NFL career the same way he ended it.
Still, most* *football fans don't remember Brett Favre's first pass. Eventually, they won't even remember his last. What's unforgettable is everything that happed in between the two. All that, of course, will never fade away.
As always, thank you for reading! Until next time…