Purpose Despite Hardship: Former NFL player O.J. Brigance serves God through battle with ALS

As an NFL linebacker, O.J. Brigance spent years becoming the strongest athlete he could be. Now, because of ALS, he cannot even get out of bed without help from others.

Brigance spent seven years in the NFL from 1996-2002, playing for the Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams, as well as several years in the Canadian Football League. He won a Super Bowl with the 2000 Ravens, and over his entire NFL career, he recorded 42 combined tackles and two fumble recoveries.

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However, after he was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease) in 2007, Brigance’s life began to change drastically. Fighting the disease required major life adjustments. Instead of being able to eat or get dressed by himself, he needed the help of others.

“My body was no longer my own,” Brigance recently told Sport Spectrum, via email because he’s no longer able to speak. “The loss of physical independence is the toughest part of living with ALS. Having to be totally dependent on other people is a very humbling experience. Along with humility, one learns a greater level of patience.”

While the disease has had an enormous impact on how he lives his life, Brigance has learned to trust God in everything. One Bible verse that has encouraged him is 1 Peter 4:12, which talks about how trials in this life are often due to God testing our faith. Brigance noted that we’re often tested through spiritual battles, but he believes God may use physical struggles as well.

“The understanding that I have a divine purpose to accomplish each day God allows me to open my eyes keeps me encouraged,” Brigance said. “I know that God will never leave or forsake me, especially in the midst of hardship.”

While others may feel tempted to turn their backs on God when faced with adversity, Brigance chooses to keep his eyes fully on Him. He said his battle with ALS continues to strengthen his faith, a faith that began in 1989 when Brigance accepted Christ.

“My relationship with Christ has grown throughout my battle with ALS because I see His grace and provision in my life each day,” Brigance said. “My wife and other caregivers show me the love of Christ by selflessly serving to ensure that I am cared for and live the best quality of life possible. It’s servant leadership displayed to me daily. I have a dependence on the Father to give me courage to tackle each day.”

The sacrifice others show toward Brigance allows him to witnesses God’s love daily. Outside of those responsible for caring for him, Brigance listed two other individuals who have guided him in his faith.

The first is his grandmother. She ensured that he lived his life for the glory of God. He fondly recalled one time when she reprimanded him for eating without praying for the food.

“I felt a quick slap on my hand with the hand-eye coordination of a great wide receiver,” Brigance said. “‘Don’t you eat that food without blessing it,’ she said. During my early years, she would spend the summers caring for me and my cousins. She always kept us on the straight and narrow. Even as an adult, nothing changed.”

Another spiritual influence for Brigance was a teammate on the B. C. Lions (in Vancouver, British Columbia), Danny Barrett, who discipled Brigance when he was a member of the team. Through living out his own faith, Barrett encouraged Brigance to do the same.

Throughout the entire journey, God has taught Brigance simply that He is sovereign. Everything that happens, happens for a reason.

“God has taught me that His grace is truly sufficient,” Brigance said. “His strength is made perfect in my weakness. Even though I have lost my ability to physically speak, God has given me a platform and voice to have more of an impact than I may have had previously. He has been preparing me throughout my life to stand firm for Christ in my current circumstance. As I look back over the many life lessons He has allowed me to endure, He instilled His fortitude within me to overcome when the odds are not in my favor.”

Thus, Brigance uses his ailment as a means to bless others. One main way is through his job as a senior advisor for player development for the Baltimore Ravens. In his role, he encourages the players by sending emails or meeting with them at the Ravens facility.

“Just the mere fact that I come into the facility each day is a testimony to persevere regardless of the circumstances that might be occurring in their daily lives,” Brigance said.

Yet, probably the biggest means through which he helps others with ALS is the Brigance Brigade. The organization, founded in 2008, works to help those with ALS receive financial assistance to pay for treatments required to defeat ALS. It provides money toward nursing home care, speaking device co-pays and money for medical equipment.

The foundation relies on the donations of others to serve the afflicted. Those interested can go to brigancebrigade.org to donate.

Simply put, Brigance’s desire to serve God has propelled him to serve others. He does not allow his disease to hinder his calling to live for God.

“Life does not stop,” Brigance says, “due to hardship.”

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