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O.J. Brigance: "Quitting is never an option"

2:16 PM, Dec 1, 2013   |    comments
Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Baltimore Ravens former player O.J. Brigance attends Super Bowl XLVII between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
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(CBS News) The simple act of holding a football is no longer possible for the man who's the heart and soul of the Baltimore Ravens. What he CAN do is inspire and motivate his team by his very presence and example. Here's Rita Braver:

He is the man with the smile that won't quit . . . surrounded by family and friends as he celebrates his 44th birthday.

But O.J. Brigance has lived a life of stark contrasts. This former pro football player who sports a sparkling Super Bowl ring is now paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.

"I learned a life lesson through football early on," he told Braver. "I learned that quitting is never an option."

Stricken with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a disease that progressively attacks the nervous system, Brigance must take every breath through a ventilator, communicate every thought through a computer-generated voice.

Born and raised in Houston, Brigance played football for Rice University, then the Canadian Football League, and finally in 1996, number 57 made it to the NFL.

He played first for the Miami Dolphins, then joined the Baltimore Ravens in 2000. They went on to win their first-ever Super Bowl that year.

Brigance made the first tackle of the game. "I remember seeing the thousands of flashbulbs sparkling in the night. It was my dream come to reality," he said. "

Still, the team didn't re-sign him after that big win.

He played a few more years for other teams, but -- plagued by a longtime back problem -- decided to retire in 2003.

That's when the Ravens called him back -- this time to be a counselor to players, and a spokesman for the team.

His wife Chanda was by his side through it all. Married for 20 years, they still joke about their first meeting; she thought he was poorly dressed, and kept ignoring him.

"Why did you keep going after her when she didn't seem interested?" Braver asked.

"Didn't need to be dressed because I had the goods!" he laughed.

Their life seemed golden until, while playing racquetball over the course of a few weeks in 2007, Brigance began to notice increasing weakness in his right arm when swinging the racquet.

Then Chanda noticed something, too:

"It was one night, and O.J. was asleep and something just woke me up," she said. "I felt his muscles just jumping."

After a battery of tests, doctors diagnosed ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease (after the major league baseball player).

"The biggest shocker was that ALS was a fatal disease, with a two- to five-year prognosis," Brigance said.

That was six years ago.

O.J. Brigance has not only outlived predictions, but also become the heart of the Baltimore Ravens, continuing to counsel and rally the team, even as his health was declining.

Even as he lost the ability to speak on his own.

Brigance still goes to the office five days a week. He says it gives him a reason to wake up each day.

"You seem so upbeat despite all of this," said Braver. "Do you ever get angry and frustrated?"

"I have experienced times where I have been overcome by the weight of the diagnosis," Brigance replied. "But once I dried my tears and stopped feeling sorry for myself, I realized that God had given me the strength to handle this assignment."

But year after year, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has always believed in Brigance.

"Some of his counsel now is just by who he is, just by his life, by his presence, by how he attacks every day," Harbaugh said. "You know, the enthusiasm that he brings to it and the strength, that's counsel enough."

O.J. and Chanda have started the Brigance Brigade, a foundation that raises money to help others with ALS.

The cause of the disease is unknown, but a study released last year did find evidence that professional football players are four times more likely to die from ALS than the general population.

In fact, in the recent landmark NFL settlement on concussions, players with ALS are eligible to receive payments from a $675 million injury compensation fund.

Braver asked, "Do you worry that playing football could have been a cause of this disease?"

"Absolutely," said Harbaugh. "You think about it all the time. I think the players especially think about that, and I think -- and I know the NFL's doing a great job of trying to take the head trauma out of the game as much as they can. And that's what we should be doing."

As for the Brigances, have they ever thought that football could have contributed to this situation?

"I don't know," said Chanda. "And that's the honest truth. But what I can say is that I am absolutely 100 percent on board with them finding out to see what is causing it."

Meanwhile, O.J. concentrates on his work counseling the Ravens. And, remarkably, he's also managed to write his life story, titled, "Strength of a Champion."

"I would spend entire days typing until my eyes were crossed," he said. "And of course there were computer issues. I thought I had saved my work, only to find out it had been erased and I had to type everything over again."

But then, O.J. Brigance has never been one to give up. These days he communicates with players like star running back Ray Rice, mostly through e-mail.

"It doesn't matter what's being said in it, it's the fact that he took his time to think about me while he's going through his situation, so I think that's a bigger stat than scoring a touchdown," Rice said.

Rice and the rest of the team say the fact that Brigance watches almost every practice, keeps them on their toes.

"He's fully there," said Rice, "and that's just one of the things that shows he's never out -- you can never count him out."

Indeed, last year, after the Ravens won the Super Bowl, he was right there with the team when they made the traditional champions' visit to the White House.

And Coach Harbaugh says, O.J. Brigance will always be the Raven's secret weapon.

"People don't think of football teams as warm and cuddly," said Braver, "as places that nurture people in this kind of way."

"Sure, Sunday afternoon is sort of a battle," said Harbaugh, "and yet, I think the thing that O.J.'s brought to it is that there's a place for love in everything and every place."

Even football? "Even football. I think that's what O.J. makes kind of obvious."

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