By Danielle Chazen
Despite his terminal diagnosis five years ago, former Ravens linebacker O.J. Brigance celebrated his 43rd birthday Sept. 29 and continues to serve as the team's senior advisor to player development. Brigance suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which has no cure.
|O.J. and Chanda Brigance|
Brigance and his wife, Chanda, quickly learned about the expenses and accommodations necessary for people with ALS to live and function properly. Chanda Brigance said she and her husband were inspired to begin a foundation to raise awareness and funds for people suffering from the disease, as well as their families. Thus began the Brigance Brigade Foundation, established to provide care, medical equipment and support to ALS patients who lack the resources and support system of a former NFL player.
"We wanted to guide those in need of direction and so that they do not feel like the Lone Ranger," Chanda Brigance said. "We, too, had to learn -- and are still learning -- about this awful, nasty disease. Just to live each day with it is challenging, and it really changes your life. We've had to make adjustments as needed, but we try not to let it adjust us."
O.J. Brigance has not allowed ALS to prevent him from living his life. He goes to work each day, analyzes the team, conducts business meetings and partakes in regular speaking engagements at local schools and forums.
In an effort to honor Brigance, a local tri-athlete, Todd Jennings, chose to represent Brigance and the foundation in this year's Ironman World Championship, held Oct. 13 in Hawaii.
ALS has not personally affected Jennings or someone in his family, but he was motivated to spread awareness about the disease after hearing the story of former tri-athlete and ALS patient Jon Bias.
"Jon's story emotionally moved me to tears, and after watching a program on his life, I sat there really reflecting internally about how fortunate I am in my own life," Jennings said. "I reached a pivot point and decided that I wanted to take the time to spread awareness for the ALS community."
Although he knew little about the disease, Jennings began doing research. He reached out to Bias' parents and dedicated himself to continuing to spread Bias' message.
"A motivating factor for my mission to spread awareness is that when folks are diagnosed with cancer, they have hope," Jennings said. "There are things that doctors can do. But when someone is diagnosed with ALS, there is nothing they can do. It is a death sentence, and that is unacceptable to me, considering Lou Gehrig brought national attention to the disease in 1939, and so little progress has been made."
Jennings began training in 2009, and started with one triathlon. By 2010, he had completed 12 triathlons and built up his stamina significantly.
Jennings first learned about the Brigance Brigade Foundation after meeting Christine Kirkley, the director of fundraising and community relations for the ALS Association, at an ALS gala.
"All of the things I admired about Jon -- his passion to fight the disease and confront his situation, his goal of taking advantage of each day, his huge heart and his mission of raising awareness -- are all things I see in O.J. Brigance," Jennings said.
Jennings also founded a team, Ironman4ALS, dedicated to spreading awareness about the disease. Other teammates include Rob Spinosa, Heather Wajer and Garen Riedel, who will all be promoting ALS in some form.
Jennings said he trained 25-30 hours each week for the race, spending 3-4 hours in the gym during each training session.
"In addition to the physical, I would say 75 percent of it is mental," Jennings said. "As a tri-athlete, you have to push beyond what your body is capable and go to places you have never been. I mentally prepare by thinking about Jon, O.J. and those with ALS. That's the fuel that fills my tank -- the emotions and passion for what I believe in."
Jennings said Olympic tri-athlete Michelle Jones, a silver medalist, had been one of his most important mentors during his training.
"Ironman is a daunting stage that attracts top athletes from around world," Jennings said. "[Jones] told me that ... I want to make sure that I take it in, enjoy it, and don't get too caught up in the race itself. I'm here to take in the moment and spread my message about ALS.
"O.J. has his previous NFL experience as a great platform to educate people about ALS, and I'm trying to do the same."
During the 140.6-mile race in Hawaii, which included a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, Jennings honored Brigance and his foundation by carrying a photo of the former Raven with him and crossed the finish line with a Brigance Brigade Foundation flag in his hands.
"We are so humbled that Todd would choose our foundation to partner with and work with," Chanda Brigance said. "What's especially unique is the way that Todd is involving the foundation. Bringing Ironman into the fold is very exciting. Through Todd and through the Ravens organization, we have been showered with so much love and support."
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease, which affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. More than 5,600 people in the United States are diagnosed with ALS each year.
Users can donate online to the Brigance Brigade at gofundme.com/Ironman4ALS and learn more about the race via Twitter: @Ironman4ALS.
More Cheap Seats:
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• Jennings Goes Ironman For Brigance Brigade
• Veteran Goalie Thornton Returns To Alma Mater
• Blast Pitch In To Help School Shooting Victim
• Stevenson Will Play Host For Jumbo D-III Tourney
Issue 178: October 2012