O.J. Brigance’s battle with ALS resonates up north

One of the most remarkable stories at this year's Super Bowl has a significant CFL connection. Baltimore Ravens' senior advisor to player development O.J. Brigance has inspired many throughout his five-plus-year battle with ALS (detailed well here by Fox's Peter Schrager), and some of that impact's being felt across the CFL thanks to Brigance's past there. The usually-terminal disease has put Brigance in a wheelchair, and he can only now speak with the assistance of a high-tech DynaVox that translates his blinks into words, but he was an outstanding CFL and NFL linebacker; he played in the CFL for five years from 1991-1995 with the B.C. Lions and Baltimore CFLers/Stallions (during the U.S. expansion era), winning a Grey Cup with Baltimore in 1995 and then moving on to the NFL with the Miami Dolphins and the Ravens (where he was part of the 2000-01 Super Bowl-winning team, making him the only player to win a Grey Cup and a Super Bowl while representing the same city). As Mike Beamish of The Vancouver Sun writes, Brigance may be physically limited by illness now, but he's still inspiring Baltimore's players:

“It’s rare that you see somebody so strong and so determined and so motivated, every single day,” Ravens linebacker, Brendon Ayanbadejo, another ex-B.C. Lion, told The Vancouver Sun. “He can’t move a single finger, walk, brush his teeth, or speak to us in a normal voice. It’s a contradiction of sorts. He is extremely limited, but he’s so powerful. His attitude, his motivation, his inner strength — we see it every day at practice, or at our training facility. Our jobs are easy. Our lives are easy. Nobody makes us appreciate what we have better than O.J.”

Here's a remarkable video feature ESPN did on Brigance earlier this month:

ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease) is a devastating disease that's struck many former CFL players, including legendary former Montreal Alouette Tony Proudfoot. Proudfoot passed away in 2010 following a long battle with ALS, and he was at least the eighth former CFL player since 1950 to be diagnosed with the disease. No definite link between ALS and football has been proven yet, but the CFL statistics are certainly concerning: ALS hits between one and two people out of every 100,000 in the general population, but has struck at least eight out of the approximately 5,000 CFL players since 1950. It's also hit plenty of NFL players, including former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason, who teamed up with current players and coaches to record this video about ALS that hit the web Monday:

ALS is an absolutely devastating disease that's hit far too many football players. That's why Proudfoot's role in boosting awareness of the disease and raising funds for ALS research (information on the Tony Proudfoot Fund is here) was so crucial, and Proudfoot's story has inspired former Montreal teammate (and current B.C. GM Wally Buono) to reach out to Brigance. From Beamish:

The Lions, following up a suggestion by Bob Marjanovich, a Team 1040 radio personality, are turning Marjanovich into a special emissary during Super Bowl week. He’ll present a No. 57 Lions jersey, and a letter of encouragement from GM Wally Buono, to Brigance who wore that numeral when he played in B.C. from 1991-93. He was twice a CFL West Division all-star.

Although Buono admits to having only a passing acquaintance with Brigance, who was stricken with ALS in 2007, the cause is close to his heart. He was a Montreal Alouette teammate of Tony Proudfoot, an innovator (Proudfoot came up with the idea of putting staples in shoes to gain better traction in the 1977 Grey Cup “Ice Bowl”), educator (Montreal’s Dawson College), broadcaster and hero. ...

“I know more about it because, by being involved, I’ve learned how cruel and tough a disease it is — seeing Tony regress,” Buono said. “My thought was, Tony had the courage to bring attention to all this, and fight for it. The least I can do is lend my name to the cause. The jersey and the note are just an acknowledgment to O.J. that we support him in his fight, too.”

Brigance touched many people during his time in the CFL, including many Lions' fans (see Beamish's piece for more on that), and he's clearly still making a substantial impact on the Ravens. He's also doing tremendous work to improve the lives of those with ALS through his Brigance Brigade. It's great to see CFL types reaching out to him during this difficult battle. His story's well worth thinking about in the lead-up to Super Bowl Sunday, and his football career on both sides of the border should be remembered as well as the amazing work he's still doing with the Ravens. Most importantly, though, Brigance serves as both an example of how devastating ALS can be and an example of how much those hit with it can still do to lead and inspire.